Archive for November, 2010

Regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on, the Republican sweep of the 2010 elections is going to presage some fundamental changes in the tech / science landscape, at least based on what the incoming set of pols say they are going to do.  Time now to take a look at some of these likely results, and of course decide if we like them or not.  One thing for sure, the Democrats have been very timid in advancing their causes during the last two years, and it’s equally sure the incoming Republicans probably will not be.  Whether or not they actually have a “mandate” from the voters to actually implement all these positions is not at all clear, but one can assume they’re going to try.

The background for this analysis is straightforward: broadly speaking, the incoming conservative Republicans are very strongly pro-big-business, believe that climate change is a hoax, and believe that Islam is a special global threat that requires extraordinary measures to combat it.  They also see government and its regulations and laws as the chief impediment to the national improvement.  And finally, they have a strong fundamentalist-Protestant ethos that is the most basic foundation of their worldview, and for many this ethos is hostile to science.

So, where does this leave us?  Like it or not, here’s what appears to be coming.

Dramatically less research funding, especially in areas not producing technologies leading directly to marketable products.  This article in the Times says it all: National Institutes of Health might drop by 9%, National Science Foundation, -19%, and NOAA,  -34%.  This is in contrast to the Obama administration’s projected reduction of about 5% overall in research funding for the next fiscal year.  One might ask why NSF and NOAA are taking such a hit, and the answer is what appears to be the Republican antipathy toward the whole concept of climate change, see below.  They don’t believe it, and they aren’t going to fund it.  Certainly our current economic situation requires belt-tightening, no question.  But these agencies take the brunt of political punishment for their positions: NIH refuses to promulgate the idea that abortion causes breast cancer and rampant depression, NSF keeps acting as if biological evolution were actually true, and NOAA — well, read on.  Opposing these agencies speaks right into the heart of the Republican / Tea-Party conservative core.  Nobody campaigned saying “we’ll cut emissions and promote greener living,” they campaigned on “drill, baby, drill.”  And obviously, that’s what the electorate wanted to hear.

There will likely be a concerted attack, and that’s not too strong a word for it, on the idea of doing anything about global warming / climate change.  For whatever reason, the Republican Party has embraced the position that climate change is a scientific hoax, or anyway if it’s real, it really doesn’t matter.  Part of this is their pro-business slant, and anything that impacts quarterly profits is anathema.  Several incoming Congressmen have stated that they will hold hearings for the purpose of “putting the lie to all this global warming scare talk.”  Rick Perry, the newly-re-elected Governor of Texas, intends to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses in Texas and has filed seven lawsuits against the government to prove it, see here.

This position is partly based on the fact that curbing greenhouse gases and addressing climate change will require concerted Federal action, and the Tea-Party view is that this must therefore just be a big liberal power grab.  Others, and some of these I have personally talked to, take a very Christian-fundamentalist view that “the Earth was put here for our use” and it would be an affront to God if we fail to fully exploit it, and anyway the Rapture is coming very soon so it won’t matter if the Earth is left a gutted hulk because God is going to destroy the universe anyway.  And soon.

So given these, we can expect very little if any Congressional support for any green technology investment or research.

Net Neutrality will be threatened and probably eroded.  The Obama administration has taken a strong stand for “net neutrality,” the concept that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must provide non-preferential routing to all Internet traffic.  In the US, there is an effective oligopoly on Internet service, unlike Europe where it is a competitive free-for-all and hence service is much better (in other words, faster) and the costs are lower.  The big ISPs are determined to not let all this competition happen here, and they intend to leverage their oligopoly position to create a set of tiered services where those content providers who can’t pay the extra tariff will be relegated to second-class service.  Since this is good for the providers’ business, the Republicans are going to fight any net neutrality regulations under the banner of “get the Federal government out of our private lives,” and of course, protect their oligopolistic profits.

Also, and especially in the Internet environment, there will be attempts to enact more intrusive laws that will reduce Internet anonymity and personal privacy.  The Obama administration has not been a shining light here, either, having asked for legislation to require eavesdropping “backdoors” in telecommunication networks and hinting that data encryption might somehow be restricted.  But the more militant parts of the Republican / Tea Party, for all their table-pounding on personal and states’ rights, and freedom, and the Constitution, are worked up considerably against the to them ubiquitous Muslim Terrorists, and believe if they can only curtail some of our freedoms and privacy they will be able to eliminate terrorism or terroristic threats.

How much of this can the new Republican majority enact in two years?  Probably not all that much but they can stall, de-fund, and in general make a mess of things.  And to date the Obama administration has not been an effective counterpoint to them.  My only editorial comment on all this: it’s not pretty if you think that science and technology investments are critically important to our economic and political future, that science should not be trumped by politics and religion, and that personal freedom and privacy are what after all we stand for in the world.

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