In December 2010, Republican House Majority leader Eric Cantor launched a website he called “You Cut,” encouraging citizens to identify “wasteful” grants awarded to scientists by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The agency, the premier U.S. institution that funds non-medical research in science and engineering, was poised for attack by citizen assailants. The aim, of course, was to make researchers working on projects like “computer models to analyze the on-field contributions of soccer players” look profligate and foolish. Though mutual skepticism between lay citizens and academic scientists is nothing new, harnessing this ambivalence to further the aims of the Republican party was ingenious.
Despite the fact that so many of our nation’s policy challenges are related to science and technology, only 2 percent of Congress has a professional background in science. In November, Congress slashed the budget for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy by one-third. Science drives innovation, creates solutions to technical and environmental problems, and influences our health and safety, yet many Americans surveyed cannot name a single living scientist. Polls reveal ignorance about science, and in some cases, antipathy toward it.
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