Higher-ed must lead in supporting science

Earth Day 2017 was perhaps the most significant celebration of the day since the first one, on April 22, 1970. With scientists and educators leading the March for Science, and a new administration in Washington busily rolling back environmental protections, awareness of the Earth and trust in science are both at a crossroads.

From the grassroots protests against pollution that energized the late 1960s and 1970s through hard-fought battles won at Love Canal in New York, the Florida Everglades, and in America’s wilderness and wetlands — as well as within the government itself — our nation has amassed an admirable record of environmental stewardship over the past 47 years.

Regulatory excesses have occurred, of course, and activist extremism often has done more harm than good. But our commitments to clean air and water — along with numerous local and regional victories in achieving balance between development and conservation — and the fostering of sound environmental policy-making have been landmark successes in saving the planet. Today, “sustainability” has even more currency than the term “conservation” once did.

Here in coastal Virginia, the battle to save the Chesapeake Bay goes on, but we have made important progress in marshaling our institutions — from the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation — to promote understanding, appreciation and advocacy for the natural resources that define and sustain Hampton Roads. Other communities around the country have gone green, not just cosmetically but realistically and cost-effectively.

Now, in a huge leap backward, the administration of President Donald Trump appears bent on reversing nearly five decades of perspective and progress.

Decades ago, warnings about climate change and humans’ role in it were accompanied almost immediately by denouncements by skeptics whose ideology or politics could not tolerate certain inevitable, immutable laws of nature. Now, the idea that climate change is a hoax has become the latest outrageous statement in a canon that runs the gamut from “let’s wait (indefinitely) for more research and evidence” to “let’s kick the (non-recycled) can down the road for the next generation.”

Simultaneously, despite efforts to upgrade science and technology education in the United States, America’s students are losing ground in these fields. Many school systems lack the funding to invest in science education; competition for science faculty at the collegiate level often comes down to issues of compensation and professional development.

As the Environmental Protection Agency is gutted, scientists are fleeing, and the public is writing checks to support what Washington will not.

The true long-term concern is not the rollback of regulations but the widening distrust and ignorance of the value of scientific inquiry itself. As an educator, I find that trend more disturbing than such political pronouncements that King Coal will triumphantly return to Appalachia or that the Keystone Pipeline will result in vast numbers of new jobs.

The value of research is why higher education should not only participate in the “march for science,” but lead it. Our best hope of educating and energizing future generations about environmental responsibility is in our classrooms, libraries and labs, along with our partners in primary and secondary schools.

Artists, musicians, actors, athletes, leaders of service learning and campus ministry — virtually all members of our college and university communities — have roles to play as consumers, advocates and concerned citizens. As the value of objective inquiry, research, analysis, documentation and communication distinguishes all that we do on our campuses, so, too, should those standards be upheld by all of us — especially for the benefit of science, but ultimately for the health of our home.

At Virginia Wesleyan College, we recently placed a time capsule within the walls of our new Greer Environmental Sciences Center. Items included examples of technology that may well be obsolete when the capsule is retrieved a quarter century from now.

Rachael Pan, a senior who is majoring in biology, was among the participants. Her comments, unlike some of the commemorative objects in the time capsule, seemed timeless: “We need (scientific) accomplishments — fueled by the wonder and imagination of the human mind — more than ever.”

My hope for the students at my institution, and all those throughout the educational systems of Hampton Roads and our nation, is that we will always find reasons to invest in science, to trust its lessons and to heed its warnings. If efforts to preserve the Chesapeake Bay, for example, have taught us anything, it is that practical benefits outweigh baseless speculation.

And it is science that teaches us the difference.

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Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach. Previously, Dr. Miller served as President at Bethany College in West Virginia (2007-15), Wesley College in Delaware (1997-2007) and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee (1991-97).

He wrote this for the April 30 issue of The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)

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