Another endangered species: scientific research in America.

Sadly, the Western Black Rhino has been declared extinct, and other species of rhino may  be close behind them.

On the other hand…

Scientists have discovered a new species of hammerhead shark in Carolina.  And a new species of “walking shark” in Indonesia. A new species of dinosaur in Utah. A new species of daisy in the Andes. And they have captured footage of ultra-rare cats in Borneo.  Between 2010 and 2013, hundreds of species have been found in the Amazon rainforest.

Scientist have even discovered a new body part: a knee ligament, called the anterolateral ligament (ALL), which 97% of people have.

Our knowledge of the world around us changes every day, with an often bewildering speed.  It’s amazing, and cool.

True, many of those species discovered in the rainforest and elsewhere are themselves endangered or threatened — in many cases because of potential habitat destruction or climate change.  Still, they’re there, and we didn’t know about them until recently.  (My favorite may be the purring monkey.  Yes, it’s specieist, but really, a new primate? Wow.)  This provides us with even more incentive to save habitat in South America and elsewhere.

It also gives us incentives to protect funding for research.  While very interesting, I doubt that the discovery of those species will provide a financial boon to any one.  So why should people fund the research?

So much research is based on helping us understand the universe around us.  Good grief, that is most of what NASA does, or why else would we send rovers to Mars? Finding new species doesn’t save lives; space research  doesn’t help the economy.  But they do increase knowledge, which is a good thing.

Except we, as a country, are increasingly loathe to pay for it.  Even biomedical research, which can help save lives, is being devastated by cuts in funding caused by the budget sequester. Research that could  eventually lead to new treatments for a range of diseases from diabetes to cancer  is struggling to find money, with the risk that work that has taken years might have to be abandoned.

Science takes time.  The short-term view so often adopted by our elected officials and the private sector is at odds with the requirement of research. The Rocket Scientist observed to me once that sequestration was endangering work he had spent the last ten years of his life on.

It is not just the research itself.  Creating the environments — labs, research sites — in itself can take years.  The development of analogue sites for space research, for example, takes more time than most people realized, and these sites have to be maintained.  Money has been sunk — a lot of it — into labs and equipment, money that would be for naught if the experiments that were supposed to be done have to be shuttered.

When the government shut down in October, there was a strong possibility that the field season for Antarctic research would be canceled.  McMurdo Station was sent into caretaker mode.  Even after the shutdown was reversed, there were experiments that had to be scrubbed because of the lost time.   Experiments that had been planned far in advance, sometimes by years.

The effects will last for years to come.  Nor is it limited to the projects themselves: America’s capacity to do research in the future is threatened. Why would anyone spend years of their lives getting a Ph.D. when there is little chance for them to get work? Why would anyone pursue difficult field work — such as that done in Antarctica — when the fate of their projects lies in the hands of a completely dysfunctional political body?

It is not like Congress is alone in their scientific ignorance, though.  A few years ago, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana made fun of the U.S. volcano monitoring program, labeling it as wasteful spending.  Because, of course, no one in America is ever affected by volcanoes — unless you count all the people living in the shadow of active volcanoes, or the people who take flights which cross over volcanoes.  In 1989, a KLM flight  going over Mt. Redoubt in Alaska had all four engines quit — causing the plane to drop two miles before the crew could get them restarted. Over the past few years, eruptions of Icelandic volcanoes have caused occasionally significant disruptions to air travel.

As a country, we need to recognize the need for and potential benefit from basic research.  Because if we don’t pay for it, who will?

There is knowledge out there to be gained.

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