Friday, June 17, 2011

Scientific and Political Culture in the Capital

By Gary Berg-Cross

Talking about the culture that exists inside the DC area Beltway sometimes evokes pretty negative responses and with good reason. The culture of modern national politics is less the art of the possible than of endless, silly shallow hypocritical ideological confrontation and posturing. Its a place where a pumped up version of American Exceptionalism exists with blistering criticism of current government. Government workers are increasing looked down upon as part of an inept culture just like public school teachers. To some the whole mix that makes up the public sector is seen as inefficient and ineffective. Workers and politicians are lazy they say. They lack good judgment and aren't serious about serving people. I don't hold to those views and their non sequitur reasoning, but I do see political conversation (and action) in the Capital as an unrealistic mix of group and party interests dressed up with bumper quote principles. The faulty reasoning of some is evident when conservatives say things like closing lobbyist-developed tax loopholes is a tax increase which they must oppose. In the past Washington’s summer have been called the silly season, because that’s when politicians went on expensive, taxpayer-funded, “fact finding” vacations around the globe. There’s less government money for such junket silliness, but the exercise of perks has grown into adventurous national tours paid for by campaign contributors. This silliness reflects the fact that there are now enormous wads of money to push ideological ideas and values.

But our DC Beltway culture also contains a good deal of wonderful values to celebrate. Some of this is generated by the non-political and secular institutions in the area. They may be less plush with money but they still generate events like the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival each June-July organized by the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The festival celebrates cultural traditions around the world. I’m particularly fond of those which present a secular, scientific culture. As locals we can partake in quite a few of their events, but through grants and research efforts they send rational ripples outward throughout the country. I’m thinking of such institutions (a short list) as NIH, AAAS, the National Academies of Science, the Carnegie Institute, the NSF, the National Geographic and the many parts of the Smithsonian Institution (SI) including its Zoo (which I visited yesterday -try the Think Tank for some fun observations of our Ape cousins). They all have events, lectures and programs that celebrate science and often the larger culture. So there is lots to enjoy in the area and together they continue to inspire generations of Americans through broad access knowledge and digestible nuggets of human creativity and discovery. And they are often depend on exceptional people to make them survive in hard, financial times.

2011 Marks the 165th anniversary of the Smithsonian and I like the vision being implemented by SI’s 12th Secretary Wayne Clough. Clough combines sounder scientific and management values than his immediate (Small) predecessor while “expanding the Smithsonian’s global relevance and helping the nation shape its future through research, education and scientific discovery on major topics of the day. “ This is American Exceptionalism at its best.
One of his first initiatives has been a consensus-based new strategic plan that articulates four grand challenges whose goal is to leverage diverse resources of the Smithsonian’s museums and science centers through interdisciplinary approaches. The parts we see in DC are only the tip of SI’s iceberg of science with many moving parts across 769 Acres involving 500 scientists and 9 big research centers.

I feel especially close to the first challenge, called Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe. It reminds us that science is an ongoing enterprise that builds on the shoulders of past progress. While I tend to think of the SI icons of the Natural History such as human origins, SI’s Science Centers operate out of town and are interested in science broadly and include astronomical investigations to better understand inflation in the early phase of the universe. This gets at current mysteries such as the nature and role of dark matter in the evolution of the universe, and the properties of the dark energy that is speeding up the expansion of the universe.

I also feel excited by the 2nd challenge, Understanding and Sustaining a Bio-diverse Planet. This stands in sober contrast to the way large part of the political system have dealt with issues around climate change. SI continues t work to increase knowledge of the evolutionary and ecological history of species and ecosystems, and the processes responsible for population declines and extinction.

The next grand challenge - Valuing World Culture is also something that political DC sometimes has trouble agreeing on. Even harder to get a good objective stance and agreement on is the last challenge - Understanding the American Experience. It perhaps represents a more sober and balanced take on experience rather than a slanted view of American Exceptionalism (as I discussed in a previous posting). And I believe our science institutions remain one of the real prize realizations of the aspiration of American excellence.

1 comment:

lucette said...

Very interesting and enjoyable post, Gary.