Do we seriously need a national "Science Laureate"?

I’m guessing that at least some of you will react with the same sense of confusion I experienced when you find out that we are facing a delay in having our nation’s first official Science Laureate.

Wait… we were going to have a Science Laureate?

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives was expected to give swift approval to a bill introduced this spring by a bipartisan coalition of legislators in both the House and the Senate. The legislation would allow the president to name not more than three laureates at a time to an unpaid position that could last up to 2 years. The idea was considered so innocuous that it was to be brought up under special rules requiring a two-thirds majority and allowing no amendments.

The bill was never discussed in any committee, however, and Larry Hart of the American Conservative Union hit the roof when he saw it on the House calendar for the next day. (The Washington, D.C.-based group calls itself “the oldest and largest grassroots conservative organization in the nation.”) In a letter to other conservative organizations and every House member, Hart said the bill would give President Barack Obama the opportunity to appoint someone “who will share his view that science should serve political ends, on such issues as climate change and regulation of greenhouse gases.” He also called the bill “a needless addition to the long list of presidential appointments.”

The House Republican leadership reacted immediately, pulling the bill from the floor schedule. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) had introduced the bill along with Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chairs the House science committee, and a House Democratic aide says “we had expected it to pass easily. It’s no secret that Ms. Lofgren and chairman Smith don’t see eye-to-eye on many things. But they agree on the value of creating this honorary position.”

We’ll get to whether or not this is really something we need to be doing in a moment, but some of the bill’s supporters are making arguments which don’t seem to make much sense. Take, for example, Randy Hultgren (R-IL), [SEE UPDATE] who said, “This is not a presidential appointment, and there would be no taxpayer money involved.”

That’s a rather odd argument for a bill which is described as one which would allow the president to name not more than three laureates at a time. If that doesn’t define a presidential appointment, I’m not exactly sure what it would be. Also, I’m seeing some comparisons out there to the Poet Laureate already, but simply saying that we have one of those opens the door to a Science Laureate doesn’t really carry much weight. The PL actually isn’t appointed by the President, but rather by the Library of Congress. It’s also a paid position, though at $35K per year you’re not exactly hitting the Lotto by winning the position. And frankly, it’s not that hard to make an argument why we’re spending $35K on it anyway.

If this proposed position isn’t an excuse to push partisan doctrine on science issues, what’s it for? Do we need somebody to go around reminding Americans that knowing stuff is good? To encourage kids to become scientists? Hey guys, we’ve got cable television now, and it comes with the Science Channel. I’m not sure exactly what the potential harm is to this proposal aside from giving each administration another tool to promote their own agenda – and not a very big one at that – but it’s tough to see what the value add is in swelling the bureaucracy even further with this bit of fluff.

UPDATE: (Jazz) I was contacted by a member of Congressman Hultgren’s staff who wished to point out that it was a staffer, not the Congressman, who gave that quote.

UPDATE 2: (Jazz) The Congressman’s office has further offered up the following as a response. Though I informed them I remained unconvinced and still don’t support the proposal, this is the feedback from Congressman Hultgren’s office.

In his first annual message to Congress in 1790, George Washington said: “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is, in every county, the surest basis of public happiness.” That’s pretty strong language. Washington felt it was the duty of Congress to promote science. Later, Abraham Lincoln signed into law the National Academy of Sciences, which will recommend the, yes, unpaid laureates to the President.

There’s danger in any authority Congress gives the President to use it for political means, and using this important program to push a political agenda (climate science or otherwise) is unacceptable. But this is not a political appointment in the traditional sense of the word. We would expect the President to rely on the Academy’s recommendations which would cover a wide array of science areas.

By creating this Science Laureate program, we’re building on the actions of Abraham Lincoln to carry out the will of George Washington and our founders—what can be more conservative than that?

As Rep. Hultgren said on the House floor: “Our children must see that science is something our nation values, or they will not make the sacrifices necessary for our next great discoveries. Our nation will not be leading the way through our next frontier if we do not inspire the next generation of great scientists.”