Political Pinball

Deaf, dumb, and blind boys will never play pinball (mean or otherwise…with apologies to The Who)

Today marks the start of my 11th annual Service Learning class trip to New Orleans and southern Louisiana. My friend Paul Sanchez just played a fantastic home show in Hollywood last weekend and my son and I were fortunate enough to catch it in its full glory. There Paul strummed one of his (and John Boutté’s) favorite interpretations of a Paul Simon song: American Tune. Those lyrics have been running through my head for the past several days and seem to well sum up the sentiment percolating through the Pirate Lab. American Tune goes (in part):


Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken

And many times confused

Yes, and often felt forsaken

And certainly misused

But I’m all right, I’m all right

I’m just weary to my bones

Still, you don’t expect to be

Bright and bon vivant

So far away from home, so far away from home

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered

I don’t have a friend who feels at ease

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

or driven to its knees

But it’s all right, it’s all right

We’ve lived so well so long

Still, when I think of the road

we’re traveling on

I wonder what went wrong

I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong


That unfortunately well articulates the uncertainty and upside down sense I have at this point in our nation’s history.  I have been keeping up with recent events and  suddenly found myself on a 3.5 hour plane ride with a computer in front of me (but no internet).  So it seemed like a good time to jot down my thoughts and to help explain (or perhaps, more correctly, get my own thoughts in order when I’m next asked to explain what I mean).  And so with only limited hyperlinking here (I will properly interject the references herein once I am have time again with internet) are my most recent worries as related to science and our federal government.


Toxic Politic

We all know too well there has been much hyperbole by the political right and left of late. Regrettably, jabs from sharp elbows, the childish embrace of ignorance, active fomenting of nihilism, and trumpeting the fact your are nauseated by and deeply contemptuous of those with alternative perspectives have come to define our “dialog.” There are many victims of this discord, with effective public policy-making being perhaps one of the clearest examples.
The arenas in which I dwell most frequently (transformative public education for all and effective, sustainable natural resource management) offer a disturbing front row seat to this toxic distrust. These gladiatorial “games” are in full swing with ever-louder screams for blood peeling from our computer screens, newspapers, and street corners that are our modern coliseum benches. As with the Roman Circus, our modern political blood fever has driven ever more extreme actions that rely little on reasoned countenance, informed analysis, or even reality.

Roadmap to a More Dimly Lit Path

Our most recent case in point is the current federal budget proposal from the Trump White House formally loosed on his 56th day in office. In my lifetime I have never seen such an utter contempt for the arenas in which I dwell here in the United States. I witnessed firsthand the sad and lonely descent of the once-dynamic and democratic Republics of Turkey, Venezuela, and Somalia slip into the abyss of new dark ages in recent years. The implosion of each of those countries began with an initial, active dismantling of democratic and social institutions that created to foster enlightenment, democratic engagement, education, and science-based decision making.
While some would say this newest federal budget proposal was simply to be expected from the man who campaigned on gleefully taking a wrecking ball to the status quo and public institutions, I would urge greater attention to this document. We are not witnessing a different political regime’s shifted priorities, but rather an effort to actively dismantle whole segments of our modern public education system and termination of science-based decision making. These are not cuts in the mold of Bush I or Bush II or even Reagan. Rather, we are seeing the severing of entire swaths of public policy and wholesale deletion of entire segments of federal agencies (with perhaps the deletion of those agencies in years to come). To be sure not all of these priorities will necessarily be enacted in fiscal year 2018, but it is a crisp roadmap for where our President would like to lead us. And it is a place that is quite literally darker and murkier with less understanding and fewer informed decisions.

Climate Change in the Crosshairs

It is quite clear that Mr. Trump and his advisors are desperate to pull the United States back from multilateral agreements wherever they can. This budget shows they apparently want to begin with deleting any and all efforts (limited though they were) to address the existential threat that is human-induced climate change. And not only pull us back from existing efforts, but to dismantle the very study of climate change, the collection and sharing of facts (what I normally call data), and hobble the objective work of informing the pubic debate with facts (data). From the deletion of every program at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that explores ecological impacts of climate change and evaluates how efficacious emission control technologies are, to terminating the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) efforts to make coastal cities more resilient to sea level rise or to even collect satellite data about the dynamics of the earth, to shuttering the Department of Energy’s advanced research into cleaner and more sustainable fuels.
As our leaders are gleefully tearing down the pillars that are our existing (albeit imperfect and often insanely bureaucratic) environmental protections, a growing number of industries are politely clapping them on. Most recently Detroit’s automakers smiled their pearly whites as yet more proverbial rule books were chucked into the carbon-rich pyre that is Mr. Trump’s unfolding anti-earth policy. On Wednesday Mr. Trump initiated a review of our current fuel efficiency standard for cars and trucks in front of crowds of cheering auto workers, telling the assembled crowd that “The assault on the American auto industry is over,” and that his review would seek to “ensure that any regulations we have protect and defend your jobs, your factories…[via] a task force in every federal agency to identify and remove any regulation that undermines American auto production.” You know: things like seat belts, air bags, and less toxins coming out of your tailpipe. All that stuff that is “bad” for the brilliant business minds that comprise the mainstream auto manufacturers. For now the State of California’s EPA waiver that allows cars sold in California (and the 11 other states that follow our standard) to be held to a cleaner emission standard remains in place, but troubled waters are likely ahead for this “local control” fig leaf of environmental protection.
Here is an excellent summary of the pro-pollution and anti-science budgetary priorities from the always-fantastically written and researched Vox:

1) Many of the EPA’s climate programs would be terminated. Trump is proposing a sweeping 31 percent cut to the EPA’s budget — from $8.2 billion down to $5.7 billion — shrinking funding to the lowest levels in 40 years. That includes zeroing out funding for many of the agency’s climate programs. Currently, the EPA is the main US entity working to monitor and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

So there’s no more money for work on the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation to control CO2 emissions from power plants, which Trump aims to repeal. (By law, the EPA would still have to work on emission rules for vehicles.) There are cuts to “international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts” — totaling $100 million. We don’t have line-by-line numbers, but that could include killing EPA programs like the Climate Resilience Evaluation Awareness Tool, which helps utilities adapt to extreme weather events.

The budget also proposes eliminating Energy Star, a voluntary certification program that helps companies release energy-efficient products, helping prevent more than 300 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. It proposes axing climate research funding for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, the agency’s scientific research arm, whose overall budget would be cut in half.

One EPA climate program that would likely survive is the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, which measures emissions from industries around the country. Congress has mandated this monitoring, and getting rid of it would require legislative changes. So the EPA could still quantify US greenhouse gas emissions — it just couldn’t very much about it.

2) The Department of Energy’s R&D programs would be reoriented and scaled back. Trump is proposing a 5.6 percent cut to the Department of Energy. And, to do that, he would impose a steep 17.9 percent cut — roughly $2 billion — from core energy/science programs intended to accelerate the transition to new (and cleaner) energy technologies.

DOE has a variety of offices that direct early-stage research into solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, batteries, carbon capture for coal, and other technologies. But these offices also partner with the private sector to deploy new energy tech that’s closer to fruition — the sort of partnership that helped bring about the fracking boom. Trump’s budget proposes shrinking back from deployment and focusing solely on early-stage research, which many conservatives see as the only proper role of government. (Deployment, they argue, is vulnerable to cronyism and amounts to picking winners and losers.)

While we don’t have specifics, this proposal might mean ditching things like DOE’s Sunshot Initiative, which helps solar companies look for ways to cut costs. It also might mean DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy will no longer help utilities build carbon capture and sequestration technology for coal (as DOE did with the Petra Nova plant in Texas). The latter would be a striking change, since Trump has long promised to help bring about “clean coal.”

Trump’s budget also proposes eliminating ARPA-E, which funds early research into long-shot energy technologies too risky for the private sector, like biofuels from algae or flying wind turbines. And the proposal eliminates the loan programs like the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program, which gave early support to Tesla. The proposal argues that “the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research.”

Some energy experts argue that government-backed deployment is absolutely essential if the US hopes to cut emissions quickly and shift to low-carbon energy. And new Secretary of Energy Rick Perry seems to agree with this view. Here was Perry just the other day praising ARPA-E, which is now on the chopping block:

The White House, clearly, has other ideas.

3) State Department funding for climate change is axed. As part of the Paris climate deal in 2015, the United States pledged not just to cut emissions, but also to offer $3 billion in aid to poorer countries to help them adapt to climate change and build clean energy. So far, the Obama administration has chipped in $1 billion. This was seen as crucial for bringing these countries into the deal.

Trump would end all that. In his budget, he’s proposing to “cease payments to the United Nations’ (UN) climate change programs by eliminating U.S. funding related to the Green Climate Fund and its two precursor Climate Investment Funds.”

This doesn’t mean that the United States is leaving the Paris climate deal altogether — the White House is apparently still debating that. But it means they don’t plan on contributing any funds toward making the deal work.

4) NASA’s Earth-monitoring programs are cut. One reason we know so much about climate change is that NASA has deployed a fleet of Earth-observing satellites since 1999. They collect data on everything from temperature and precipitation to underground aquifers and ocean currents to wildfires, soil moisture, and storms.

But NASA’s Earth Science Division has come under attack from conservatives who don’t appreciate the agency’s forays into climate science and think NASA should focus on space exploration instead. As such, Trump’s budget would trim the agency’s Earth science budget to $1.8 billion — a $102 million cut. That’d include terminating “four Earth science missions (PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments, and CLARREO Pathfinder) and reduc[ing] funding for Earth science research grants.”

The proposal derides these programs as too “Earth-centric.” For context, NASA’s PACE mission was meant to help climate scientists better understand how aerosol particles and clouds influence climate change — still a key source of uncertainty — and to monitor ocean ecosystems more closely. The OCO-3 program would measure atmospheric carbon emissions with greater precision. DSCOVR, meanwhile, will still monitor solar storms that could harm the grid, but it will no longer use its Earth-facing cameras to monitor things like ozone levels, weather patterns, or deforestation.

5) A key NOAA program to help coastal communities adapt to climate change would be gone. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant program provides grants for research efforts intended to help coastal communities deal with a wide variety of challenges. Lately, that has included climate change.

As John Upton writes at Climate Central: “Sea Grant research has helped West Coast shellfish farmers cope with water acidification, provided advice to Maryland residentsabout coping with worsening floods, and promoted the use of grooved nails in roofs to secure panels during storms in the Northeast.”

Including Sea Grant, Trump’s budget would eliminate $250 million in NOAA programs for coastal management, calling it “a lower priority than core functions maintained in the Budget such as surveys, charting, and fisheries management.” It’s unclear if Congress would agree to this: The Sea Grant program was established back in 1966 “to foster economic competitiveness” and has rarely been controversial in the past.

The Specifics:

source: LA Times Analysis, March 16, 2016


Source: Wall Street Journal Analysis March 16, 2017.

Virtually every research grant my colleagues and I have secured over the past few years, have at the moment, or have active applications under consideration at the moment for (hopefully) future funding have been specifically targeted by Mr. Trump for termination. Not reduced funding, but termination.
To illustrate, here are a subset of the programs that fund our work and targeted by the Trump Administration:

  • NOAA’s coastal resilience funding eliminated
  • NOAA’s B-Wet funding eliminated
  • NOAA’s Marine Debris monitoring and education funding eliminated
  • NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries greatly reduced
  • NOAA’s Environmental Satellite-based data collection greatly reduced (by $0.5 billion)
  • NOAA’s SeaGrant – all 31 state programs and all offices slated to completely shutter
  • NOAA’s sustainable coastal communities funding eliminated
  • EPA pollution monitoring funding greatly reduced (coastal pollution and climate change sources specifically targeted)
  • EPA non-point source tracking funding greatly reduced

Our other program funding or possibly funding our lab (grants pending) include the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Defense (environmental impact assessment funds), and Fish and Wildlife Service. Not enough details were made available to determine the impact on these last few programs. While it is possibly the Department of Defense pots of monies we could utilize may grow, that is unlikely given that the proposed funding is all for combat-related efforts (“bombs, boots, and boats” as one Navy colleague described the $54 billion in proposed new Defense spending).

What this Means for My Students:

Without our research dollars, my program will simply grind to a halt.

This undermining of science is all bad for my students. Here at our very new and small (but rapidly growing) public university, we are perpetually strapped for funds. As such, my program (with more than 160 majors at our last census) has no equipment budget for all intents and purposes. Yet I teach students to build and fly sophisticated robots, measure algal concentrations with water quality probes that weigh in at about $12,000 a pop, quantify microplasic with a suite of microscopes and lab-based equipment, etc. The research grants my colleagues and I bring in provide not only the fuel for our scholarship and undergraduate-based research, but for much of our teaching as well.

Those that will be harmed are the students who are least likely to (traditionally) pursue STEM degrees.  My students are disproportionately underrepresented in higher education and certainly underrepresented in science disciplines.  They are a diverse bunch, but by in large first generation college goes, often veterans, disproportionately female, and often working at least part-time to pay for school if not nearly full time.  We all understand the importance of apprenticeship and starting out at the bottom.  In science that usually means doing the horrible crud job.  If we can’t give our students at least some kind of stipend or provide them with equipment (and the training and guidance) to go out and begin to develop quantitative, practical field and analytic skills, their path down a road to a technical and science-driven career is exceedingly rare.  These grants from these agencies do just that.  Yanking the rug out from us will harm my lab and the proximate topics we are working on at any given point in time, but it will also dramatically undercut all of this groundwork and “minor league” (although that analogy fails to truly convey the quality oaf the work my students do on a daily basis) development my lab, our ESRM Program, and CSU Channel Islands in general are becoming known for.  At more well off research-focused universities or private colleges, loss of such federal funding would be problematic, for us it is likely to be catastrophic and have ripple effects across our research, teaching, and service to our community partners (such as the work we are about to kick again this year in coastal New Orleans and Plaquemines Parish.

Finally it should be noted that many of the cuts will also particularly target our Hispanic youth.  “Youth” in this case means not just my university students, but the youth of the middle schoolers and high schoolers with which we work across Ventura County (via our B-Wet, Marine Debris, and Crossing the Channel Programs), the youth we engage with during our Science Carnivals, public education events, etc.  Many of the federal cuts are synergistic with reductions in outreach and education for border areas and first nation peoples and appear to be designed to undermine efforts to bring some of the most disenfranchised (such as our Department of Education grants to Hispanic Serving Institutions, NOAA education programs, etc.).

While one could read my post here as something of a “but I want something” with a strong air of so-called special interest.  The irony is that my colleagues and I get virtually no salary from these funds, preferring to convert these resources into tools and experiences for and with our friends, students, and communities to benefit all of them first and foremost.

To again quote Mr. Simon by way of Mr. Sanchez:


And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered

I don’t have a friend who feels at ease

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

or driven to its knees

While The Who‘s song from Tommy is a nice, memorable tune, if we continue to make the youth of our day death, dumb, and blind, no one will be playing any pinball (or much of anything else for that matter). In any event, remember this in only the 1.5 month point in Mr. Trump’s tenure.  There is soooo much more to unfold.  Stay strong.

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