In the last hundred years, humans have developed a great capability to anticipate the future and shape it to serve our purposes. We owe this skill to our mastery of empirical science — the power that comes from using millions of observations and data to decipher trends, and act on that knowledge to preserve and enhance the world in which we live.
This Earth Day, tens of thousands of citizens will join the March for Science to celebrate this ability. The message to policymakers will be clear — robust funding for science is in everyone’s interest. The March for Science isn’t a partisan event, but steep cuts in the proposed federal budget would severely damage scientific work that ensures we are not surprised by tomorrow, and allows us to thoughtfully correct the mistakes we have made in the past.
As the CEO of a science-based organization, The Nature Conservancy, I understand that rigorous science is much more than an aesthetic benefit to egghead ecologists.
Take the outdoor recreation industry, which supports millions of American jobs. Why does science matter to them? Consider hunting. Duck populations declined dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s when wetlands were drained to make way for crops and urban development. That decline was reversed by the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. It used science to identify 25 million of acres of breeding and nesting habitat that have been conserved by public and private funds. In 2016, the duck population was 48 million, 38 percent above the 1955-2010 average. This is just one example of science shaping a tremendously successful federal conservation program.
Do federal conservation programs cost you a lot? Not a dollar more than they cost you in 1980. Since President Reagan came to office, federal appropriations for natural resource conservation and pollution control have fallen from 2.5 cents of every federal dollar spent to less than a penny.
If you had to design a federal budget, would you spend less than 1 cent of every dollar on science-based work managing and protecting our parks, wildlife refuges, sea shores, fisheries, forests, air and water quality?
Environmentalists are rightly concerned about proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. But I think the greatest threat is the potential decimation of many national science programs including biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health, weather satellites at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the breakthrough energy technology research done by ARAP-E and the work on anticipating and averting climate change done by the Global Change Research Program.
In our darkest days, the first Republican President faced a threat to the security of the Republic that was certainly more dangerous than any we face today. Did he deny that the federal government had any role in moving the country forward outside of prosecuting a war? Not at all. President Lincoln launched a federal development program that made us a great nation. He signed the Homestead Act that brought millions of Americans to the Great Plains to grow food for the world. He created the Department of Agriculture to support them with science and advice. He signed the Merrill Act that established land grant universities producing science to support farmers and foresters to this very day. He also drove development of the trans-continental railroads that allowed this army of new people to bring their crops and timber to market.
One might expect that President Lincoln had no time to think about opportunities for the federal government to transform the future of the nation, but he did exactly that. That should be the example every President looks to when shaping the federal budget.
As you surely expect, I think the greatest challenge of our time is climate change driven by our fossil fuel consumption without carbon pollution controls. We need deep investments in science to anticipate the impacts of those emissions and adapt to them. And we need investments in research and adoption of new technologies that can bring carbon emissions to an end.
What gets me excited about going to work every morning is my capacity, armed with the best science, to understand how the future is likely to unfold and to do something to make it better for nature and people. Those marching in Washington and in hundreds of cities around the world this Earth Day understand that this is what science can do for us. We must not lose this command of the future.