The Case for Science Within Government
By Gil McRae, FWRI Director
“Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness…”
– George Washington, Inaugural State of the Union Address, January 8, 1790
Following the American Revolution, the founding fathers faced the daunting task of setting up a government. The war, which had for all intents and purposes ended with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, was not officially over until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. At that time, the US was still a loose confederation of states with little to no central authority. Nothing got done without the agreement of a majority (or in some cases the entirety) of the thirteen states. That remained the situation until the US Constitution was ratified by a majority of the states. The Constitution, which became effective in 1789, established the president as chief executive and one of the requirements was that the president shall “…from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union…”, which brings us to the above quote by George Washington. The quote is from his (and our) inaugural state of the union address which was read to congress in New York City, the capital at that time. Washington D.C. did not yet exist, and the area was literally a swamp.
The fact that the first president of this new country would take the time to highlight the importance of an educated citizenry (unfortunately at the time, only white men) is very telling. Among the various powers the Constitution assigned to Congress is the “promotion of science and the useful arts”. The founders of our country realized that the idea of the United States was more important than the mechanics of government and that our fundamental principles – government based on consent of the governed, individual rights, freedom of speech and no state sponsorship of religion – needed to be widely taught for our system of government to endure. Because the concept of the United States was not yet widely accepted the big concern was how to promote national awareness. Along those lines, Washington and many other early leaders were extremely interested in establishing a national university. Washington, who was the nation’s wealthiest president excluding (perhaps) the incumbent even provided for the national university in his will. The idea of a national university did not pan out, mainly because the states developed their own universities to complement those that existed prior to independence.
In challenging times our nation has repeatedly turned to science to inform policy, although the pathway has not always been quick or straightforward. The National Academy of Sciences was established by Abraham Lincoln in March 1863 in the midst of the Civil War. Earlier that year, Lincoln had introduced the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in states that had seceded from the union. One of the first tasks assigned to the newly established Academy was to figure out a way to stabilize compasses aboard the newly deployed ironclad ships, whose iron hulls interfered with the navigational tools.
In Florida with the establishment of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a constitutional agency, the inherent value of science within government is recognized. Although the word science does not appear in Florida’s Constitution, the word research occurs 3 times: 1) in establishing the mission of the state university system, 2) in exemptions associated with the net limitation amendment, and 3) in defining the mission of FWC. The three pillars of the FWC mission: management, research and law enforcement are enshrined in perpetuity in the constitution.
Our FWC mission as laid out in the constitution seems straightforward and laudable but there are some realities relative to science that are not often understood. While our Commission has a proven track record of basing natural resource decisions on sound science, they are not required to follow that approach. Technically, our Commission is bound only by something known as the “rational basis test” which simply means that they must act rationally related to a “legitimate government interest”. Former supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall once said, “The constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws”. The same could be said for our state constitution and our Commission. While we can all be proud of the scientific legacy we have built over more than six decades at the Institute (and the fact that our Commission has been committed to science-based management) it is important to realize that does not necessarily have to be the case. The facts will usually win out, but it can take a very long time for that to happen – consider our ongoing struggles with racial and gender equality.
While it has taken a while to get there, policymakers are beginning to reach out to scientists on the biggest environmental challenge of our time, anthropogenic climate change. The conditions that result in a warming and less stable climate and the acidification of our oceans have been with us for decades and the rate of accumulation of green house gases in our atmosphere is accelerating. Florida’s fish and wildlife are and will continue to be impacted by climate change. Governor DeSantis has introduced bold policy initiatives related to water quality and has hired the state’s first ever Chief Science Officer within DEP, Dr. Tom Frazer who is a longtime FWC partner and a great choice for the position. As of this writing, the state is advertising for a Chief Resilience Officer to coordinate Florida’s preparations for “environmental, physical and economic impacts of climate change, especially sea level rise”. While much more needs to be done at the national and international level to combat climate change, these are positive and encouraging steps at the state level.
Policies are not always required to be based on science, but the enduring ones almost always are. It is our continuing challenge to build on our foundation of success and to be prepared as new opportunities arise.