Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn hates government waste. I mean, who could like it? It’s right there in the name: waste. Only junkyard rats could like it. He hates it so much that he publishes a database of earmarks in the omnibus spending bill and an annual Wastebook. His principle is to bring the citizens’ attention to wasteful spending, and hopefully have it stopped.
So far, so good. The problem is that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Highlighted among the Wastebook projects is a $700k study of methane production by cows. Now, to a Climate Change Ostrich like Coburn, that seems like an extravagance. To a person who understands science (and is not merely “trained to read scientific documents”) and the risks posed by climate change, methane production is a very important part of the greenhouse picture.
This puts me in mind of the recent YouCut program, wherein citizens are encouraged to search for soft-science-sounding words in the NSF grant programs, and then to send in whichever ones they think don’t sound sciency enough. This is a dangerous trend – science is hard, and its benefits are not always readily apparent- but it has an upside. This should force working scientists to make better efforts to bring their work to the public and to make them understand why it’s important. This will be tough going for those working in basic science – for example, semiconductors were the obscure toys of condensed matter physicists for decades before they revolutionized the world. How do you explain that the fruits of your labor (and the citizen’s patronage) might not be realized for decades? But they have to try.
One has to hand it to Coburn, though. He’s not attacking science funding for the sake of it – he also criticizes the antiquated paper publication of government documents which simply go right to the recycling bin (and that costs 1000 times more than the cow study, which got top billing), and takes a hard look at the defense budget.
And Wastebook is a pretty fantastic name.