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SCIENCE, CULTURED

The Year in Science, 2009

Developments—Cultural, Political, and in Research

President Obama peers into a telescope during the Astronomy Night event on the South Lawn of the White House SOURCE: flickr.com/whitehouse It was a banner year for scientific progress and progressive science policy. But sadly, it was also the year for the rebirth of what is now a wide-ranging war on science. Above: President Obama looks into a telescope during the Astronomy Night event on the South Lawn of the White House.

It began with the promise of restoring science to its “rightful place” in American politics and life. And it closed with a nasty smear campaign against climate scientists, suggesting that battles over scientific integrity are far, far from over.

“It,” of course, was the year 2009—and for science in the United States and beyond, it featured developments and revelations variously exciting, disturbing, and above all, political.

It was the year of H1N1 flu, an unsettling test run with a less-than-catastrophic pandemic. The response called into question our capability, and our infrastructure, for dealing with the next threat.

It was the year the Large Hadron Collider finally got those protons smashing—despite being interrupted by various maintenance problems and, yes, even by bread dropped by a bird flying above the machine, which led to overheating.

It was the year of great scientific anniversaries—200 years since Darwin’s birth, 150 since his publication of the Origin of Species, and 400 since Galileo raised his telescope to the heavens. Unfortunately, some sought to exploit these occasions. Creationist Ray Comfort distributed thousands of special “editions” of the Origin to college campuses, each featuring his lengthy anti-Darwinian “introduction.” Only then came the words of Darwin himself, almost unreadable due to their tiny font size.

It was a year of complete U-turns in science policy. President Barack Obama reversed George W. Bush’s dramatic restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, and the first 13 new stem cell lines were approved for federally funded research since 2001. Meanwhile, the Obama Environmental Protection Agency moved to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, finding that they do indeed endanger the public.

It was also the year of the first-ever passage, by a 219-212 margin in the U.S. House of Representatives, of a cap-and-trade bill that would cut domestic greenhouse gas emissions—but not the year for any parallel action in the U.S. Senate.

It was the year that everyone seemed to own an iPhone and use the word “app” in regular conversation. It was the year Twitter went from being a mere annoyance to the epitome of web-based communication.

It was a year that saw the very first Nobel laureate scientist assume a cabinet position, in the figure of U.S. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu.

It was the year in popular culture when science ceased to be nerdy and became world-saving cool. The disaster film 2012 epitomized the trend. Despite the plot’s scientific incoherence, the lead character is a scientist who is described in the film as a “deputy geologist” at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

It was the year of new calls for science communication and public engagement: The Year of Science 2009 movement was launched, the second installment of the World Science Festival was held in New York City, and three books came out exhorting scientists to kick off their shoes and speak to real people, including Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Cornelia Dean’s Am I Making Myself Clear?, and my own (co-authored) Unscientific America.

It was the year in which scientists captured the first ever images of an exoplanet—a planet orbiting another star far from our own solar system.

It was the year that Russian scientists upped the ante on the increasingly prominent subject of geoengineering. They did so by running a small-scale field trial that blasted sulfate aerosols out of the back a helicopter and then measured their effect on diffusing sunlight at ground level. On a vastly larger scale, such an intervention could cool the planet.

It was the year that several groups across the country celebrated the 50-year anniversary of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” lecture. There was general agreement that those cultures are as divided as ever, if not more so—but also that a newer and more important rift may like not between scientists and humanists, but rather, between scientists and intellectuals on the one hand, and everybody else on the other.

It was the year of the “largest single investment in clean energy in American history” in the form of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The government put $80 billion into clean energy across a range of sectors, ranging from the construction of a smart grid to the weatherization of homes, as a means to jumpstart economic growth and create jobs.

Sadly, and finally, it was the year for the rebirth of what is now a wide-ranging war on science. Some of us may have thought it ended with the previous administration; but we underestimated the momentum that crusaders against the Obama administration, and against climate change action, could gain on this front. With “ClimateGate,” a smear against climate researchers so damaging that it may even have impelled a measurable drop in public trust of environmental researchers, we enter a new stage for political conflicts over science—one in which the gloves are off as never before.

But if that’s a sobering note to end on, we can make a more uplifting new years’ resolution. As the push to defeat global warming continues to eke out small bits of progress (most recently in Copenhagen), it is time to recognize that our scientists need aid and defending—which includes helping them help themselves through better public communication efforts.

The battle to restore scientific integrity isn’t over. It has only begun.

Chris Mooney is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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