Science for the Common Good

Richard Houghton

Acting President & Senior Scientist
Richard A. Houghton

Recent news regarding a possible collaboration between our neighbors at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and fossil fuel companies sent shock waves through the scientific community, exposing the Faustian bargain faced by many independent scientific institutions in this era of declining government funding for science.

The real problem is the critical importance of government funding for science, particularly climate and environmental science. Good as the market is at distributing resources, the market has never been effective in looking after the public interest, particularly human rights and the environment. Those public interests depend on governmental, rather than market, regulation; and the US recognized this in the early 1970s by creating the National Environmental Protection Act, followed by the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

Alas, Congress has failed to enact any climate legislation despite several attempts to do so in recent years. Government funding for climate research is out of proportion to the severity of climate risk. I’ve written previously about the decline in funds required to keep environmental measurement programs going. But reduced government funding also imposes other burdens. For the near future, research institutions must seek new funding models. One alternative to federal support is funding from private interests, including corporate, academic, and individual support.

The Woods Hole Research Center is best at measuring changes in carbon storage on land as a result of land use and climate change. Like our colleagues down the road, the Woods Hole Research Center is also at a critical point: on the one hand, our research needs additional  funding; on the other hand, the choice of what to study must be based on what’s known and not known about climate change — and that’s a scientific question. The need for support requires that we explore all the alternatives consistent with fostering science. We need to keep pressure on the federal government to support environmental and climate science for the common good, but we also need to seek support from those individuals and institutions who recognize the risks of ignoring or denying climate change.