In light of the state of science education discussed in this blog’s last post, it seems reasonable that the U.S. government would be eager to take even the smallest of steps towards promoting scientific literacy among the nation’s young people. One such step, proposed as H.R. 1891 by a bipartisan group of representatives on May 9, would be the creation of an official “Science Laureate of the United States” appointed by the president. Much like the U.S. Poet Laureate, the Science Laureate would serve as a focus for the communication of his or her field, traveling the country to speak on the importance and excitement of scientific research. As described by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the bill, “As our society becomes ever more technical, a role model for how important scientific advancement is for our nation’s future will help us. The Science Laureate can serve that role, as an accomplished individual to engage Americans on the importance of science in our lives and who can encourage our students to be the innovators of tomorrow.”
Based on the bill’s widespread support among House lawmakers, it was scheduled to pass earlier this month through the expedited “suspension of the rules” procedure, which limits debate for non-controversial measures such as naming post offices. But controversy did arise after the bill reached the attention of Larry Hart, legislative director of the American Conservative Union, a Washington, D.C.-based group claiming to be the “oldest membership-based conservative organization in the United States.” Hart contacted the leaders of the House Republicans, who subsequently removed the bill from the schedule and sent it into the standard series of legislative steps.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Hart explained, “What I couldn’t understand was why [Republican] folks who constantly give speeches saying that they’re upset with President Obama’s appointments would give him the power for new appointments, particularly in the area of science, which he has a particular view of — in my opinion — a very politicized view of science.” A letter Hart sent to Republican lawmakers and conservative lobbying groups clarified his objections, stating that Obama could use the position to promote White House views of “climate change and regulation of greenhouse gases.” A spokesman for one of these groups, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, was quoted as saying about the bill, “There’s no way to make it work. It would still give scientists an opportunity to pontificate, and we’re opposed to it.”
It is this last quote that should be of the most concern to supporters of science. As it stands, the bill does have a number of problems that would benefit from further discussion: laureates would be unpaid, have ill-defined duties, and be required to juggle academic and government commitments. But these practical concerns do not counter the wisdom of supporting a public figure for science education. A Science Laureate would encourage people to learn more about the world around them and make better decisions about matters of science as they pertain to public policy. If this possibility frightens a group of lawmakers, then perhaps it is time for that group to examine the scientific basis of their own positions.