On February 8, 2006, President Bush signed the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) grant program, which will provide annual funding of up to $4,000 for third- and fourth-year full-time college science students. The idea was to give the sagging American lead in science a swift kick in the butt. In early August, a nameless bureaucrat gave science a solid knee to the groin when evolutionary biology was left off the list of approved majors eligible for SMART grants. The Department of Education later corrected the omission, but the Bush administration’s penchant for manipulating scientific data to support political goals has many questioning the nature of the deletion.
The controversy is growing, due to vigorous questioning by the U.S. science community, with Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University leading the charge. On August 16, Krauss was tipped off to the omission by a source at the Department of Education (The Chronicle of Higher Education broke the story on August 22). California Representative Henry Waxman has also joined the Case of the Missing Major, requesting an expanded explanation of the omission, as well as copies of any communications by all involved in the list’s preparation.
Though the revised list will keep funding available to qualifying evolutionary-biology students, the problem is that the deletion occurred in the first place. The grant program was designed for funding to be awarded automatically to students, but a July 1 activation date means the funding cycle for most universities has already started. National statistics for the seven-month-old program aren’t available yet, but UTSA will be awarding 264 students $1,033,261 in SMART grants for the fall and spring terms. Many other financial-aid offices will have to dispense awards manually, increasing the odds for administrative errors. Student budgets are tight enough without having to contend with administrative snafus, and four grand could keep a future scientist stocked with Ramen Noodles and Red Bull for at least two semesters.
Local suspicions and doubts about the incident mirror the national attitude, with little faith in the explanation given by officials. And while most people outside of the science and education fields might shrug in disinterest at the issue, there are compelling reasons why evolutionary biology as a field of study should be defended on all fronts and at every level — notwithstanding the fact that a Harris Poll in June 2005 indicates that two-thirds of Americans think humans were created by God.
Dr. David Ribble, professor of biology at Trinity University, offered a rationale for evolutionary biology as a discipline: “A very practical reason to understand the mechanisms and ways of change is how bacteria have changed or evolved to become more resistant to antibiotics. If a doctor prescribed the same antibiotics used 20 years ago, these would be ineffective due to the evolution of drug resistance in bacteria.” Ribble also pointed out that current global temperature changes are having an effect on biological communities in our ecosystem; and our survival or extinction is directly related to their success or failure as evolving organisms.
Future scientists not directly involved in practical applications of evolutionary biology also benefit from its study. Three science-lab tutors at Palo Alto College — Darvis Cosper, Tim Anthony, and Ed Gildermeister — agreed without hesitation that the study of evolution at all levels provides students a clear understanding of biological relationships. Anthony, a chemistry major who’ll be receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina in December, insisted that his own religious beliefs and political conservatism did not diminish his appreciation of evolution as a “logical, algorithmic explanation of why things are the way they are.” He added that faith and science can be reasonably compatible. And all three scoffed at the idea that the deletion was accidental.
The political and cultural sensitivity surrounding evolution in the U.S. and the willingness of the Bush administration to ignore or change data to suit policy make many scientists and academics uneasy, despite the government’s scramble to remedy the problem. “The question of why it was not there in the first place has still not been adequately answered,” Krauss told the Current, “and Representative Henry Waxman and I have independently written to the Secretary of Education asking for an investigation and some answers.”
It’s difficult to imagine how cultural conservatives could argue with Krauss, other scientists, and academics about the necessity for rigorous science-education standards, but the past few years have shown that religious fundamentalism — homegrown or imported — has little use for logic and reason. Just thank your favorite flavor of Supreme Being that the smartest guys on the block are fighting on the side of the angels.