The brief // by Ben FrankelScientific research, budget cuts, and DHS

Published 10 June 2011

The FY2011 budget of DHS’s Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) is $827 million; this year the administration’s budget proposal raised it to $1.2 billion; a measure passed by the House last week cut S&T’s FY2012 budget by 52 percent relative to the current budget — to $398 million; DHS said the cuts would stall development of technologies for border protection, detection of bio-hazards, cargo screening, and seriously disrupt research into domestic IED detection, leaving mass transit vulnerable to attacks; as we consider this dramatic cut, we should accept three things: first, the growing national debt is a threat to the well being of the United States and its security, and must be addressed; there are only two ways to address the debt issue: the government must reduce spending, or it must take in more money, or both; second, every government program must be thoroughly examined to see whether there is a justification to continue it — or continue it at the current level of funding; homeland security programs should not be exempt from such an examination; third, reasonable men and women may differ on the relevant issues: what is the nature of the homeland security threats the United States is facing; what are the best — and most cost effective — ways to meet these threats; can every last research initiative at S&T be convincingly justified?

Late last week, the House passed a proposed FY2012 DHS budget which dramatically cuts the department’s science and technology research budget. We devote today’s discussion to this issue.

1. The politics of science

Back in December 2010, Daniel Sarewitz wrote an important article in Slate (“Lab Politics: Most scientists in this country are Democrats. That’s a problem,” Slate, 8 December 2010). Here is the opening paragraph:

It is no secret that the ranks of scientists and engineers in the United States include dismal numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans, but few have remarked about another significantly underrepresented group: Republicans.

Indeed, a Pew Research Center Poll from July 2009 showed that only around 6 percent of U.S. scientists are Republicans; 55 percent are Democrats, 32 percent are independent, and the rest “don’t know” their affiliation.


This very small number of Republican scientists is not merely a curious fact – it is a growing problem in American politics. Sarewitz convincingly argues that the lack of political balance – the term “philosophical balance” would be better here – in the ranks of scientists has consequences for public discourse, political discussion, and public policy.

As evidence, 66 percent of Democrats (and 74 percent of liberals) told a March 2010 Gallup poll that they believe the effects of global warming are already occurring, while only 31 percent of Republicans said they believed global warming was underway. Sarewitz poses this question regarding the Gallup poll:

Does [the disparity regarding global warming] mean that Democrats are more than twice as likely to accept and understand the scientific truth of the matter? And that Republicans are dominated by scientifically illiterate yahoos and corporate shills willing to sacrifice the planet for short-term economic and political gain?

His answer is “No.” There are two reasons for the disparity: the political ramifications of answering “yes” or “no” to the question of whether or not global warming is occurring – and the miniscule number of scientists who regard themselves as Republicans.


For more than two decades now, evidence suggesting that global warming is occurring, and that it is occurring largely because of human activity, has been directly linked to proposed policies aiming to arrest and retard global warming by changing human behavior. Among the changes that have been proposed: limiting economic growth, raising taxes on warming-inducing materials and activities, large government subsidies to green technologies, international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, redistribution of wealth, and more. What do all these proposals, and other like them, have in common? Democrats (and liberals) like them, Republicans do not.

Now, Sarewitz says, why should loyal Republicans (or conservatives) not ask themselves the following question:

The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence — or causation?

The polarizing debates over climate change, stem-cell research, the ecological risks of oil and gas drilling in Alaska and in off-shore water, the use of all-terrain vehicles in national parks, the protection of esoteric endangered species, the benefits of preserving wetlands, the disposal of nuclear waste, the regulation of pharmaceuticals, and many other similar debates – all these, Sarewitz writes,

have convinced [Democrats] that they are the keepers of the Enlightenment spirit, and that those who disagree with them on issues like climate change are fundamentally irrational. Meanwhile, many Republicans have come to believe that mainstream science is corrupted by ideology and amounts to no more than politics by another name.

Sarewitz notes that the alienation from mainstream science has led many Republicans to be attracted to fringe scientists like the small and vocal group of climate skeptics. We note that the same is true on the other side as well: on the extreme fringes of the gay community, for example, we find “HIV-deniers” – those who deny that there is a relationship between HIV infection and AIDS. Such a denial is the result of the refusal to accept the policy – or, rather, behavioral – implications of the mainstream scientific view that HIV infection is the cause of AIDS. If one accepts this mainstream scientific view, one must practice safe sex. If one does not accept this view, one can engage in unsafe sex.


In other words, because of the deep suspicion toward mainstream science, those alienated from science begin with the policy – or behavioral – results they prefer, then work back from these preferences to look for the “scientific” evidence which would support these preferences.