Data from NASA's Kepler mission finds evidence for at least 100 billion planets in our galaxy. Image released January 3, 2013.
Seth Shulman is a senior staff writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a veteran science journalist and author of six books. This op-ed, and Shulman's other Got Science? Columns, can be found on the UCS website. Shulman contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Polls consistently show that strong majorities of Americans trust independent scientists and believe in the importance of using the best available science to help guide decision making. But you wouldn't know it from some of the recent developments around the country. On too many occasions, politics and vested interests have trumped the solid scientific evidence people need to help make decisions at the state and federal level. Here, from the Got Science desk, is a roundup of the month's top five reasons it's high time to stand up for science.
1. The Congressional House Science Committee held more hearings on extraterrestrial life than on climate change
You read that right. National Journal documented recently that, since 2013, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in the U.S. Congress, led by Texas's Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, actually has held more hearings on the search for extraterrestrial life than it has devoted to climate change . In fact, the three hearings it held on extraterrestrial life were part of some 15 separate hearings related to space exploration, while the committee has held just two hearings addressing global warming.
Of course, space exploration, and even extraterrestrial life, are bona fide science topics, but by almost any measure, climate change is the most consequential science issue of our time. With two preeminent reports — the U.S. National Climate Assessment and the latest update from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—highlighting the urgent need for action in the most dire terms yet, it's past time for the House Science Committee to phone home.
Instead, Chairman Smith has continued to express skepticism about climate change, saying, for instance, that "there is little science to support any connection between climate change and more frequent or extreme storms." In reality, both the climate assessment and the IPCC report make the evidence for such a connection clear.
Taking on Rep. Smith's comments directly, Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that the National Climate Assessment, mandated by Congress and developed by a broad, non-partisan group of scientists from across the country, "is exactly the type of independent advice we need in major policy debates." Rosenberg, who himself served as an author and scientific advisor on the National Climate Assessment, publicly called upon Smith to read the report before issuing any more unsubstantiated assertions to try to discredit it.
2. Ohio turns its back on clean energy — and the facts
The Ohio state legislature approved a bill recently that will make it the first state in the nation to halt its renewable energy standard. Sadly, the legislature made the choice to stop the standard for at least the next two years despite overwhelming evidence that, since it came into effect, Ohio's electricity rates have dropped by almost a percent and a half, saving ratepayers roughly $230 million according to the nonprofit American Council on Renewable Energy. During this same period, research by Ohio State University has shown that Ohio's clean energy sector has provided some 25,000 jobs, and a collection of business leaders operating in the state claim the sector has attracted more than $1 billion in private-sector investment.
Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, who signed the original renewable energy standard into law in 2008 with near unanimous support from the legislature at the time, blasted the move as "a giveaway to utility companies and the end of Ohio's leadership in the renewable energy industries."
3. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ignores the science on nuclear waste storage.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), charged with regulating the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants, voted recently to end all consideration of a plan to accelerate the transfer of the growing stocks of nuclear waste at U.S. nuclear plants from spent fuel pools to safer dry casks. The NRC's decision overlooks a wealth of scientific data and ignores a key 2006 study by the National Academy of Sciences that discusses the vulnerability of spent fuel pools to potential terrorist attack. (For a simple explanation of how dry casks can make nuclear power safer and help avoid the possibility of a Fukushima-like accident, see this infographic.)
As David Wright, director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists noted, the NRC's anti-science position on this issue is hard to fathom. As Wright puts it: "Given the potential consequences of an accident or terrorist attack on a spent fuel pool, the body responsible for ensuring public safety should want to know all it could about the issue, and use that information to reduce nuclear risks."
4. North Carolina enshrines communities' right not to know about fracking
The rapid growth of fracking around the country has already led some 20 states to require the disclosure of industrial chemicals used in the fracking process . Such information is vital to a community's ability to respond to an environmental spill or other disaster.
Bucking such sensible right-to-know momentum, however, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory recently signed a bill that makes it a crime to publicly disclose information about fracking chemicals in the state. While the proposed bill does establish procedures for fire chiefs and health care providers to obtain the chemical information during emergencies, it requires even these emergency responders to sign a confidentiality agreement if so desired by fracking companies.
The proposed North Carolina legislation is a textbook case of letting industry interests trump vital community concerns. For more a more sensible approach to what residents facing fracking around the country can do to insure they have access to the information they need to make good decisions, check out this helpful community toolkit.
5. Kentucky bankrolls creationism
Last, but surely not least, is the recent decision by the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority to grant more than $40 million in tax incentives for a planned $172 million expansion of the Bible-based Creation Museum that will feature a full-size replica of Noah's ark and further the notion that dinosaurs and people roamed the earth simultaneously.
Even aside from the issue of the separation of church and state, the move by the Kentucky government is a jaw-dropping affront to evolutionary science which has overwhelming evidence to show that the Creation Museum is off in its proposed depiction of when dinosaurs roamed by more than 60 million years.
As former New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Moynihan famously put it years ago, people are entitled to their own opinions, but they're not entitled to their own facts. Want your representatives to make better decisions? Let them hear from you by standing up for science.
Author's Note: Click here to sign up for alerts about actions you can take to stand up for science on issues like these.
Shulman's most recent op-ed was "Smoke and Mirrors: Who's Really Fueling Those Bogus EPA Attacks?" This op-ed, and Shulman's other Got Science? Columns, can be found on the UCS website. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.