Throughout U.S. history there have been leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, who have supported the advancement of science and the protection of health and the environment and who have taken care to inform their policy decisions with the best scientific advice. After the midterm elections in November, it looked as though this tradition might take a backseat in the new Congress. For example, Representative-elect Jon Runyan, Republican of New Jersey, said in the aftermath of the election that to balance the federal budget one could cut “all the money we spend on frivolous research projects ... studying mating tendencies of fruit flies, stuff like that—is that really necessary?”
It is. The study of disease (for which fruit flies are essential tools), and scientific research in general, boosts economic growth, creates jobs and often ends up saving taxpayers money, as do improving infrastructure, supporting small farmers and promoting green energy. These are issues on which both parties could and should find common ground. Here is what we think should be top priorities of Congress and the Obama administration during the next two years.
Farm subsidies. The nation’s agricultural policy is due for an update in 2012. This gives Congress an opportunity both to cut spending and to help the environment. Federal subsidies now mostly reward large farms for planting monocultures of corn, soybeans, wheat and rice. Much of that food goes to factory farms, where tightly packed animals provide a breeding ground for infectious diseases and produce vast quantities of waste that poses an environmental hazard. The current system devours fossil fuels, depletes the soil and pollutes waterways. It also makes high-sugar foods and beef artificially cheap, contributing to the obesity and diabetes epidemic. Through a transition in the way subsidies are allocated, the government should encourage a progressive return to sustainable, integrated farming, which alternates commodity crops with legumes and with grass for pasture.
Climate change. Opponents of proposals to cap carbon emissions argue that such measures would be a drag on the economy. But action on climate change is simple prudence. Doing nothing carries risks that outweigh the cost of phasing out emissions. Politicians should accept that calculation because the science that supports it is strong. They should also consider adopting sensible, market-friendly climate and energy measures. Options include the bipartisan “cap and dividend” bill proposed by Senator Susan M. Collins of Maine and Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State—a revenue-neutral approach that would auction carbon permits and return the proceeds to taxpayers—and a low-carbon-electricity standard, which would give states more options for generating clean power.
Smoking. In 2004 the U.S. signed the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which encourages measures to reduce smoking. Seven years later the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify that document. It should. Despite a recent move to require more graphic warning labels, the U.S. is still one of only a handful of nations that are not required to adopt anti-smoking programs or counter the increased marketing of tobacco products in the developing world. Also, as Brianna Rego describes in this issue [see “Radioactive Smoke”], the Food and Drug Administration now has the authority to regulate tobacco and could begin to use it by making cigarettes free of highly toxic substances such as the radioactive isotope polonium 210.
Protecting the Internet. The monopoly power of Internet providers, reinforced by a regulatory quirk, is putting the democratizing and liberating effects of new media at risk. Nine years ago the Federal Communications Commission classified broadband Internet access as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service”—in effect, ruling that broadband was more akin to a single information source rather than an essential conduit through which the 21st century communicates. As a consequence, the agency lacks the authority to prevent Internet providers from screening what information we can or cannot access online. The FCC should reverse this decision and ensure the Internet stays free and open.