Today’s the day the Trump Administration makes its bid to set the coal industry free, against all the basic research demonstrating that this will be terrible for both the climate and the health of the American people. It reminds me of a time, not so long ago, when wiser Republicans saw the value of basic research, and genuinely worked to make America a better country. I wrote what follows for the National Academy of Sciences, so its not a personal piece. But as I wrote, I was remembering that my daughter Clare had asthma all the time she was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s. And as the the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 gradually came into effect, sharply reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants, Clare’s asthma went away. That’s an experience many other families have shared, without ever stopping to think that they owed their improving health to basic research by–of all people–economists.
by Richard Conniff/National Academy of Sciences
On the morning of June 13 1974, readers of The New York Times swirled their coffee and mulled the front-page headline, “Acid Rain Found Up Sharply in East.” A study in the journal Science was reporting that rainfall on the eastern seaboard and in Europe had become 100 to 1000 times more acidic than normal—even “in occasional extreme cases,” said the Times, “as acidic as pure lemon juice.” The analogy was a little misleading: Lemon juice is not nearly as corrosive as the nitric and sulfuric acids then raining down on the countryside. But it was enough to make acid rain a topic of anxious national debate.
Both the recognition of the problem and the eventual solution to it would be products of basic research, the one in physical science, the other in social science, neither directed at any narrow purpose. The journey from problem to solution would be tangled and difficult, across unmapped scientific and political territory, over the course of decades. Along the way, it would become apparent that acid rain was more serious than anyone suspected at first, threatening the health of tens of millions of Americans. The solution, when it came, would demonstrate the potential of basic research to be literally a lifesaver.
The authors of the Science study hadn’t set out to find acid rain. Their long-term project was aimed merely at understanding how forest ecosystems work, down to the chemical inputs and outputs. But the first rain sample they collected in the summer of 1963, at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, was already surprisingly acidic. By the early 1970s, after almost Read the rest of this entry »