What George Will says (and doesn’t say) about science

WHAT GEORGE WILL SAYS (AND DOESN’T SAY) ABOUT SCIENCE…. At face value, there’s a lot to like about George Will’s column today. Indeed, the point of the piece is a sentiment I heartily endorse: congressional Republicans would be making a terrible, short-sighted mistake if they cut investments to science, research, and universities.

Today, the prerequisites for economic dynamism are ideas…. With populism rampant, this is not a propitious moment to defend elites, even scientific ones. Nevertheless, the nation depends on nourishing them and the institutions that sustain them.

U.S. undergraduate institutions award 16 percent of their degrees in the natural sciences or engineering; South Korea and China award 38 percent and 47 percent, respectively. America ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.

America has been consuming its seed corn: From 1970 to 1995, federal support for research in the physical sciences, as a fraction of gross domestic product, declined 54 percent; in engineering, 51 percent. On a per-student basis, state support of public universities has declined for more than two decades and was at the lowest level in a quarter-century before the current economic unpleasantness. Annual federal spending on mathematics, the physical sciences and engineering now equals only the increase in health-care costs every nine weeks.

Republicans are rightly determined to be economizers. They must, however, make distinctions.

Will is surprisingly sensible about all of this, urging Republicans to curtail their spending-cut instincts, and support research universities and scientific disciplines, suggesting, persuasively, that future American dynamism is dependent on it. The conservative columnist even goes so far as to preempt the inevitable GOP push to leave all of this to the private sector: “Research, including in the biological sciences, that yields epoch-making advances requires time horizons that often are impossible for businesses, with their inescapable attention to quarterly results.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I’m delighted to see Will make the case so effectively. We should be so lucky as to have the incoming, right-wing House majority take this advice to heart.

But — and you had to know a “but” was coming — I can’t help but notice that the message is far more compelling than the messenger. It is, after all, George Will who’s devoted a fair amount of energy in recent years insisting that climate science is to be ignored, and the scientists warning of global warming are not to be taken seriously. His commentary on the subject has been wrong, lazy, and repeatedly debunked, but Will (a) remains a warming denier; and (b) keeps writing misleading columns on the subject.

Taken together, I’m delighted Will wants policymakers, including Republicans, to “nourish” scientists and their research. But what will the conservative columnist do when those same scientists reference their research to warn of a climate crisis?