A New Year

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Science  05 Jan 2007:
Vol. 315, Issue 5808, pp. 17
DOI: 10.1126/science.1139394

At the beginning of each New Year, I have difficulty deciding whether to focus the Editorial on what's coming up, or on what's happened during the last one. This time around, there's just too much of both, so I have assumed the Mugwump posture to do a little of each.

Looking forward, an encouraging sign is that it was a good year for international science. A multinational experimental fusion reactor, ITER, got under way, and collaboration in space is growing more active. The new German head of state is a scientist, a Russian proved the Poincaré Conjecture, and Australia reversed its ban on stem cell research. As for the United States, midterm elections will deliver new occupants for important House chairmanships, and for the Senate too, if the slim majority holds. The Senate's Environment Committee gets Barbara Boxer of California, a huge contrast to incumbent James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Boxer finds the scientific evidence on climate change convincing, along with most of the rest of the country. Inhofe, on the other hand, is a conspiracy theorist who calls global warming a grand hoax. His farewell hearing, held as the 109th Congress limped off the stage, featured his usual crowd of skeptics.


Among the other new leaders is Bart Gordon for the House Science Committee (see News section). He replaces an excellent Republican Chairman, the newly retired Sherry Boehlert, so this switch is not a rescue but a quality succession. The Republican leadership helped out, ignoring seniority to name Ralph Hall ranking minority rather than former Chairman James Sensenbrenner. And the new House leadership announced a meeting schedule for 2007 that puts to shame the lackadaisical work habits of the 109th.

The bad news involves the budget. The new Congress inherits a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will last through February 15, locking spending at existing or even lower levels. That's bad enough, but recent word is that the incoming Democrats plan to extend the CR to the end of the fiscal year (FY) 2007 budget year at FY'06 levels. That would be a real loss for science funding. Their announced intention is to include financial fixes for programs that would be seriously hurt by the CR, but that's a pretty squishy promise, so we'll stay tuned to learn what will really happen to science budgets. Elsewhere, other governments are being more generous. Several European Union nations continue to grow their research expenditures, and China's allocation for 2005 was up by a stunning 16% from the preceding year.

Looking in our rearview mirror, which reminds us that objects often appear more distant then they really are, we find few sources for comfort and joy. It just wasn't a banner year. There was too much fraud in science, including a major case that put some egg on our face here. Little progress was seen in the United States and in Germany, for example, on stem cell research; and although intelligent design advocates lost in Pennsylvania and Kansas, the topic won't die. The holiday present from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was another lump of coal in science's stocking. Here's how it will review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for such “criteria pollutants” as particles, ozone, and soot. Instead of using outside science findings and EPA scientists, political appointees will collaborate with the latter to summarize “policy-relevant” science. The EPA's own Science Advisory Board doesn't like this much, presumably seeing it as yet another case of the policy cart leading the science horse.

But there are some real bright spots. New climate data, not to mention Al Gore's film and the determined position of the British government on this issue, seem to have altered the U.S. mood about global warming. Even Exxon Mobil, the most deeply embedded industrial holdout, is changing its tune; could Senator Inhofe be next? We close this topic with a fun item: here's U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia after a Massachusetts attorney had corrected his misuse of “stratosphere” in the carbon dioxide case: “Troposphere, whatever. I told you before I'm not a scientist. That's why I don't want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth.”

Troposphere, schmoposphere, your Honor. Happy New Year!

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