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Shutdown science

October 24, 2013

By Naomi Sharp

Since Barack Obama signed legislation to end the government shutdown last week, things in Washington have been slowly returning to normal. But for the slew of scientists whose research was interrupted by the hiatus, the partisan battle has larger ramifications. Experiments funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stopped while researchers waited for funding to trickle back. Scientists stationed in the Antarctic were forced to return home, wasting months of preparation and leaving their fieldwork to fester. As Politico points out, the hiatus in research funds resulted in data loss and ruined work for government-funded science.

But a number of news outlets are suggesting that effects of the shutdown on researchers is simply a symptom of a larger problem: the Republican party’s anti-science attitudes. Conservative politicians have fought for more restricted science funding for years. In the past, the GOP has tried to limit the independence of the NSF and limit the regulatory power of the EPA. (Some Republicans have suggested shutting the EPA down altogether.) With the shutdown causing problems to research, a number of outlets like SalonPolicy Micand MSNBC have reported that—rather than writing off the blows to science as a sad side effect of party politics—Republicans have celebrated the sucker-punch.

Last week the Guardian connected the dots with a straight-to-the-point article. “Are Republicans anti-science?” asks environmental journalist Richard Schiffman. “In this case, yes.”

According to Schiffman, Republicans deserve scrutiny for the potentially crippling problems—like damaged monitoring systems, lab animal euthanizations, and lost data collection—that arose from the suspension of government funding. “It is not just that government researchers were locked out of their labs and offices, but whole programs were wastefully delayed and, in some cases, endangered,” he writes. The title is a bit more provocative than its content—Schiffman doesn’t suggest that Republicans let the government come to a halt specifically to slow down the EPA and scientific research. But he chastises Republicans (Michele Bachmann in particular) for their self-congratulatory responses to the shutdown, in spite of the lasting damage it caused to science.

The Guardian isn’t alone in chronicling the partisan glee: Salon went further writing, “Fox News, Republicans overjoyed that the EPA’s been shut down.”

And Republican officials haven’t been quick to squash the Guardian’s claim: In fact, they’ve been playfully acquiescing. On Tuesday, conservatives in the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee (EPW), posted a BuzzFeed-esque listicle on their website, titled “The Top Ten Reasons The Government Shutdown Isn’t All Bad.” The 10 perks all pertain to diminished environmental regulation, like reason number nine, the “EPA doesn’t have the manpower to raid Alaska mines with armed guards.”

Only a few writers caught on to EPW’s science-mocking post—surprising, considering it’s such low hanging fruit. The shutdown “has nothing to do with stopping entitlements such as Obamacare, or shaving the national debt,” wrote Darryl Fears at theWashington Post. “Nope. It has almost everything to do with their hated rival, the Environmental Protection Agency.” At The Atlantic Wire, Philip Bump takes reason eight—“Fewer bureaucrats at the EPA makes it less likely that they’ll make up science on new regulations.”—to task:

“The “made-up science” [that the EPW referred to] is, naturally, the science bolstering the link between carbon pollution and climate change…It’s not the EPA’s science, anyway — it’s the scientific community’s, most of whom aren’t furloughed and so can “make up” (read: “generate data on”) climate science to their hearts’ content.”

Calling Republicans “anti-science” is a well-worn argument, but Republican reactions to the loss of scientific work have made an old case fresh. Their complacency in the face of serious blows to scientific research and environmental regulation is fair game for criticism from the media. It’s probably a stretch to suggest, as Business Insider did, that blocking the EPA was a driving goal of the shutdown. But journalists aren’t misrepresenting reality when they point out that many Republicans considered it a perk. Columbia Journalism Review.


From → Analysis, Commentary

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