Young scientists can drive innovation – if budget cuts don’t stop them

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

The Woodwell building at WHRC is resonating with extra energy this week, after the return of 13 undergraduate and graduate students from the Arctic. Along with four scientist mentors, a physician, a film-maker, and a New York Times reporter, these students spent two weeks camping on the Alaskan tundra, gathering permafrost samples and otherwise studying the rapid changes underway there. They will spend the next two weeks at WHRC analyzing their results, and delivering preliminary findings in a public symposium on July 27.

These activities are part of WHRC’s Polaris Project, an unusual out of the classroom educational program that we started in 2008. Polaris has proven to be a terrific way of exposing students to the excitement and the challenges of science—real science, not the cleaned-up classroom version. The work is difficult, and good outcomes are not guaranteed; this is not a cookbook laboratory exercise. But the students love it, partly for the reasons just mentioned. They know that what they are doing is important, and they generally rise to the challenges. (To my surprise, they also seem to be happy to spend two weeks disconnected from electronics!)

It’s a shame that likely future government budget cuts threaten the future of this program and others like it. Taking 23 people from all over the country to the Arctic and back (part way by helicopter) isn’t cheap, but the value obtained is incalculable. The Polaris program has a stellar record of success not only in terms of producing useful science, but also in influencing students to pursue careers in science. This is especially gratifying because many of these students are from minority groups, who generally enter science at very low rates.

If we deprive today’s students of opportunities like this, we will needlessly, stupidly, give away the United States’ undisputed leadership in science and technology. That leadership is a big part of the foundation of our economic and military strength. What our economy needs, more than merely a greater number of jobs, is more good jobs: jobs that pay enough to live and raise a family on, and which can stimulate innovation that leads to further economic growth. Careers in science can do that.

If budget cuts make it unattractive for U.S. students to enter science, not only will we lose the advantages that a strong scientific enterprise provides, but we will encourage the best minds to go elsewhere, a double loss relative to countries we compete with. Remember French President Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to climate scientists? The market for scientists is international.

In climate science specifically, the United States produces not only more than any other country but seemingly more than the rest of the world combined. (This became apparent to me when I represented the United States in deliberations related to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) For this reason, cuts to global change research funding, which are a high priority of the Washington know-nothings, would be a huge loss to not only the United States but to the world.

Potential budget cuts are a real threat, and at WHRC we are doing all we can to promote sane federal science budgets. But given the dedication of the ruling party to self-destructive spending cuts, we’d be foolish to not also prepare ourselves for reduced levels of support from the federal government. That’s what I spend most of my time worrying about, but for the next two weeks I am going to also take some time to enjoy the vibe in the Woodwell building and to feel inspired by what the talented, dedicated, and idealistic Polaris students offer for our future.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.