Starve a Feeding Bureaucrat

Few things in life are predictable with certainty but the reaction of the climateers to the proposed cut in government climate research certainly was.

The Global Change Research Program dates back to the 1990s and the Clinton Administration.  During that time, the views of Vice President Gore and the strength of his office dominated how federal research dollars were spent. Anyone who questioned the orthodoxy need not apply.

With the election of George W Bush, the program was reoriented and placed under the Department of Commerce.  The new Climate Change Research Initiative (CCRI), was intended “to reduce significant uncertainties in climate science, improve global observing systems, develop science-based information resources to support policymaking and resource management, and communicate findings broadly among the international scientific and user communities”.

Not surprisingly, the program got captured by a bureaucracy that reflected the beliefs of Al Gore and NASA’s James Hansen.  The goal quickly shifted from gaining new scientific knowledge to “research” that would confirm the indictment of CO2 and an impending catastrophe caused by human activities such as driving, heating and lighting homes and commercial facilities, and carrying on a life that was enriched by the use of fossil fuels.

Between 2002 and 2016, the climate research program grew from about $5 billion to $7.5 billion in 2009.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, there was a dramatic increase to almost $38 billion as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

What did we get from those dollars?  Based on the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not much.  We don’t know much more about natural variability, climate sensitivity, although its lower bound has been reduced, cloud formation, water vapor, or solar impacts.  In the early 2000s, NOAA did initiate an enhanced oceans observation system which has improved knowledge of oceans.

The history of the federal government’s climate research program makes clear that unbiased research is not likely to come from the federal bureaucracy.  A CATO Institute paper by Patrick Michaels– Is the Government Buying Science or Support? A Framework Analysis of Federal Funding-induced Biases—provides an insightful explanation for the biases that have been widely documented.  Michaels provides a reference to a critique of the USGCRP by Professor Judith Curry, recently retired from Georgia Tech.  She describes it as “off the rails” because it is designed to promote policies rather than advance climate science.

None of this should be surprising.  The beginning of the CATO report includes a reference to Thomas Kuhn: “fundamental beliefs can take over a scientific field”. He called these entrenched beliefs “paradigms” and noted that they tend to direct scientific thinking in specific directions. Once these beliefs become entrenched they are difficult to dislodge, despite growing evidence that they may be incorrect. Science, like any human endeavor, is subject to fads and fashions”.

James Buchanan, Nobel Laureate, who developed the public choice theory of economics proved that bureaucrats are like the rest of us.  They pursue their own self interests.  Holding government positions doesn’t convert them to angels who selflessly guard the public interest.  That doesn’t make them venal, only human.

There are a lot of questions about the climate system than need answering but the approach taken over the past several decades won’t provide robust answers.   And, just cutting budgets isn’t the answer either.  Our nation has a long history of supporting basic research that has produced new knowledge in every field of science.  Funding basic research in physics, meteorology, oceanography at well-known centers of excellence through competitive bidding is a route, but not the only one, to producing improved  understanding about our climate system as well as human impact on it.

So yes, starve a feeding bureaucrat but not our thirst for knowledge.





Founder and president of Solutions Consulting which focuses on public policy issues, strategic planning, and strategic communications.

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