Year 2016 and Congress Still Not Serious About Science

Darwin Day, an observance held annually on February 12, Charles Darwin’s birthday, is fast approaching. Scientists and secularists alike are getting ready to celebrate. This observance is a great opportunity not only to honor the legacy of the famous theorizer of evolution, but also to commemorate the works of modern scientists and to spread scientific learning across the country and around the world.

The US Congress has even decided to commemorate this important day by introducing two separate Darwin Day resolutions, one in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate, both of which show gratitude for all that Charles Darwin and modern scientists have done in improving humanity’s quality of life. These resolutions also state that evolution provides humanity with a logical and intellectually compelling explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, demand that the advancement of science be protected from those unconcerned with the adverse impacts of global warming and climate change, and confirm that the teaching of creationism in some public schools compromises the scientific and academic integrity of the US education system.

While it’s great see Congress take action on an issue like Darwin Day, the institution’s record on the sciences is a bit muddled. While some actions have been positive, such as increasing NASA’s fiscal year 2016 budget by over $1.2 billion compared to 2015, other actions have been downright destructive and embarrassing.

Perhaps the most famous anti-science action in Congress during 2015 wasn’t a bill or a resolution, but a speech on the Senate floor. In response to claims by scientists and other members of Congress that climate change is a very real solution that requires a government solution, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) brought a snowball into the chamber to make his point that the world wasn’t getting warmer and that the global warming “conspiracy” should be ignored.

A much more substantive anti-science action was the “Medicare doc-fix” bill that passed back in early 2015 that included $75 million in annual funding for abstinence-only education. Never mind the fact that numerous studies and advocacy organizations have shown abstinence-only education doesn’t actually work and that bills like the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act which support comprehensive sexual education are awaiting approval from Congress. To religious conservatives in both the House and Senate, what mattered was injecting religious ideology into national policy rather than the use of sound science to look out for the interests of their constituents.

But the most anti-science congressional action of 2015 wasn’t actually something they did, but rather something they neglected to do: support the first GOP-led climate change resolution.

Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) recently introduced a resolution with several Republican colleagues that acknowledges the human impact on climate change and calls for members of Congress to “create and support economically viable and broadly supported private and public solutions to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates, including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact.” This resolution is extremely significant because it marks the first time that members of the Republican Party have joined with their Democratic colleagues in recognizing the existence and adverse impact of climate change.

Since the introduction of this historic resolution, exactly nothing has been done to help it advance through Congress, and it is likely to die in committee at the end of this congressional session. And with the death of the resolution comes the death of any potential political will or capital which could have finally motivated both parties in Congress to act on this important issue.

So while it’s nice to see Congress take action on things like the Darwin Day resolutions, much is left to be desired in its approach to science. Perhaps 2016 will be a better year for the sciences in their volatile relationship with the federal legislature, but based on the evidence at hand, such a change seems unlikely at best.