Q&A: Judith Curry

Judith Curry, chair of Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, on the importance of understanding and protecting our home planet.

Mother Jones: One scientist said that the Bush administration doesn't base its decisions on facts: It creates facts based on decisions. Would you agree or disagree?

Judith Curry: I would agree with this statement. But I think it is not just politically motivated, but an outcome of the "faith based" presidency, with many decisions made based on instincts rather than facts. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence. The Bush administration treats science as if you have a choice regarding whether or not to accept demonstrable scientific knowledge, analogous to the choice of which church to go to or which type of automobile to drive. As an unnamed Bush official told reporter Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

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MJ: What do you think the Bush administration's affect on scientific research has been? Has it encouraged research in some fields, but discouraged it in others?

JC: Bush has ignored fields of science that aren't particularly policy relevant; that is the best you can hope for in the Bush administration, to be ignored. In any scientific field of relevance to policy, scientific findings have been distorted and suppressed by the Bush administration to avoid conflicts with the desired policy. As a detailed study by the Union for Concerned Scientists noted, "We found a serious pattern of undermining science by the Bush administration, and it crosses disciplines, whether it's global climate change or reproductive health or mercury in the food chain or forestry—the list goes on and on."

MJ: Are there any specific incidents between White House and scientists that you think are particularly revealing?

JC: NASA's mission statement used to read "To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers...as only NASA can." In Feb 2006, it was altered to delete "to understand and protect our home planet." Addressing environmental issues such as climate change was reduced substantially as a research priority. As a result of a major shift in priorities toward space exploration, NASA has been forced to cancel, delay, or descope nearly all of its planned Earth and weather satellite missions.

MJ: What in the Bush administration's legacy in the field of science will be the hardest to fix?

JC: Not only have the NASA Earth satellite missions suffered, but the next-generation weather satellites have been substantially descoped and delayed, and are presently in jeopardy. As a result, the current civilian Earth-observing system of environmental satellites is in danger of collapse. Satellites are critical for monitoring climate change, producing weather forecasts—hurricanes in particular—and monitoring other hazards such as floods and wildfires. When the current generation of environmental satellites becomes defunct, there is very little in the pipeline in the way of new satellites. Given the budget numbers and time scales involved, it could take a decade to recover from this decimation of the Earth-observing satellite programs.