Saturday, October 25, 2014

Restoring the Foundation

The following is from Congressman Rush Holt's newsletter
10/20/14 & 10/24/14

In the days before the Space Race, the skies seemed to be the limit for our achievements. When we broke through that limit, we inspired new ideas and unleashed a whole new set of possibilities. In 2007, a report was released which illustrated our nation’s risk of falling behind our competitors as science leaders, and for a brief moment, it captured the attention of scientists, economists, and lawmakers. I helped write the America COMPETES Act passed in its wake, which authorized a doubling of the budgets at many of our key science agencies.

Seven years later the framework of the COMPETES Act remains mostly bare, with funding of the key science agencies nowhere near their target. Last month, I joined the American Academies of Arts and Sciences in releasing a follow-up report, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream. It details America’s stagnation, with the U.S. now fallen to 10th place globally in research and development investment as a percent of GDP, its lowest point since before the Space Race. It gives concrete recommendations to get back on track by increasing funding for basic research, focusing on university and industry partnerships, and removing barriers that hinder the most effective impact of federal investments in research.

In order to sustain our progress as a nation we must be unafraid, even in fiscally constrained times, to make the necessary investments in our scientific enterprise. Congress should heed the call of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to restore our foundation.

Equality Marches Forward

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand three U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rulings, which allowed states’ same-sex marriages to proceed. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 30 states – including New Jersey - and in the District of Columbia.

It has been over a decade since the first state, Massachusetts, legalized same-sex marriage. At the time, those opposed to equality were convinced that same-sex marriage would weaken so-called “traditional” marriages and create other social ills. None of these predictions have come true. At various times in our nation’s past, we have acted to expand equal treatment to different groups of people, examining unpleasant truths about our own prejudices. Each time, our nation has been made stronger. As history has shown repeatedly, institutions are strengthened when they treat all people equally, and marriage is no exception.

One Crisis to the Next

This week much of our nation’s media is focused on Ebola. Of course, we must make the greatest effort to treat the affected patients and to prevent the spread of the viral infection to others.

It is a shame that our country lurches from one crisis to the next, whether in public health, public works, crime, or weather, rather than making the on-going efforts in preparation and training. We can show more foresight in building infrastructure, conducting academic research, and setting up organizational prevention and response to problems. With respect to this latest crisis, we have known of the Ebola virus for decades. We could have invested more effort and money in developing vaccines. We could have provided training and rehearsals in every healthcare facility in America in dealing with emerging diseases, contaminations, and poisonings, whether accidental or deliberate. We could have paid to construct multi-use isolation rooms in every part of the country and established protocols for transporting patients there. We still could. Wouldn’t it be better not to be caught surprised and unprepared when a disease appears, a bridge collapses, a storm surge hits a town, or a horrendous crime strikes a large number of people? The problem is not that we cannot afford to do these things.

108 Miles of 36-Inch Pipe

Despite being the most densely populated state in the nation, New Jersey has undertaken significant efforts to preserve environmentally-sensitive land and open space. Unfortunately, because of these land preservation efforts, pipeline companies have looked at these preserved spaces as an appealing corridor, perfect for new natural gas pipeline construction projects.

Earlier this month, the PennEast Pipeline Company officially began the process of obtaining approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to construct a 108-mile, 36-inch diameter pipeline. I have many concerns about how the proposed PennEast pipeline will affect protected areas, open space, and the environment – concerns that are shared by local government officials, including members of the Hopewell Township Committee and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman. Last week, I wrote to FERC to express my concerns, to request a robust public engagement process, and to ensure the preparation of a full Environmental Impact Statement that would consider whether or not the pipeline should be built. If the proposed pipeline is found to impact negatively the environment or the communities along the route, the project should not be allowed to proceed, or an alternative project plan should be proposed.

“A Cantankerous Press”

When Ben Bradlee became managing editor of the Washington Post in 1965, he believed, journalism was “more than a profession - it was a public good vital to our democracy.” When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers that revealed unattractive aspects of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and the New York Times was enjoined from publishing them, Bradlee and a few other editors picked up the cudgel and printed the information. In declining to enjoin those articles, District Judge Murray Gurfein wrote, “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve…the right of the people to know.” The sense of press independence created by the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in favor of the newspapers would pave the way for the Post’s coverage of Watergate a year later.

It is this same freedom of press which I aim to protect as a cosponsor of the Free Flow of Information Act, which provides protection to reporters and their sources from the federal government in federal courts. This would allow journalists to do their jobs the way Bradlee envisioned it.

“I Am Not a Scientist”

Recently, politicians from Speaker Boehner to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have said they are not qualified to debate the science of climate change, but that they are confident that all plans to deal with climate change would hurt jobs and our economy.

I am a scientist, but that doesn't uniquely qualify me to debate climate change. As Members of Congress, we rely on the expertise of others to inform our decision-making about many subjects in which we are not expert. With respect to climate change, I agree with the overwhelming consensus among scientists: the climate is changing largely as a result of human activities, and we can and must act now.

Maybe politicians who are using the “not a scientist” dodge do not realize how insulting it is to scientists. It reflects a dismissive attitude toward evidence, and it uses scientists as a convenient excuse for avoiding political heat. I was on MSNBC with Steve Kornacki last weekend to discuss science, politics, and the intersection of the two.


Rush Holt
Member of Congress

No comments: