Editorial: A day for celebration and protest

Published: 4/19/2017 12:03:57 AM

Saturday is Earth Day, the annual holiday to advocate good stewardship of the planet, launched in 1970 by the late Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson.

This year it will be marked by a March for Science, which bills itself as a “global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies and governments.”

We have mixed feeling about the pairing. Science, to be credible, must be impartial, objective and nonpartisan. The widespread reduction of federal support for scientific endeavors proposed by the Donald Trump administration – cuts to budgets of the National Institutes of Health, the EPA, NASA and agencies performing and funding research – would do great harm. They would slow the quest to cure disease, feed a hungry world, combat climate change and keep the U.S. economically competitive. That makes the need to rally public support of the scientific research imperative.

Marches by scientists and their supporters, however, risk being seen as political acts. If so, that could hurt support for science in the long run. Countering that is the potential for demonstrating that scientists are not rarified beings who all look like Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future.

Since the first Earth Day, the knowledge gained through science led to big reductions in air and water pollution and acid rain. It spurred technological advances, energy savings, and better medical products, practices and procedures. The list goes on and on.

Late last year DEKA Research, in partnership with the University of New Hampshire, learned that it would receive nearly $300 million, primarily in federal funds, to build and staff a regenerative medicine laboratory. Its mission? To develop the techniques and technology needed to generate tissue used to replace organs and limbs, including those lost in war. The ultimate economic benefits for New Hampshire could be enormous.

Earth Day 2017 also coincides with two other promising developments. One is the campaign, led by Republican luminaries, to convince Congress to tax carbon emissions and refund the money earned to consumers. The so-called Carbon Fee and Dividend plan would tax the carbon in fossil fuel at the point of its first sale at a rate of $15 per ton. The price per ton would increase by $10 per year, providing a growing incentive to reduce emissions and the burning of fossil fuel. Energy consumers would be insulated from cost increases associated with the tax by the dividends they receive.

The other development has the potential to reduce the high cost of batteries used in cell phones and other devices, and speed the switch from petroleum to electricity to power vehicles.

The University of Texas at Austin recently announced that engineering professor John Goodenough, the co-inventor of the lithium ion battery, and lead researcher Dr. Helena Braga have created a solid-state battery that uses not a liquid but glass as its electrolyte. The battery uses sodium extracted from sea water rather than lithium, which is in short supply and expensive. It will not explode or catch fire, stores three times the energy of a lithium battery, recharges in an hour or so and lasts far longer than its predecessor.

The burning of fossil fuels for transportation is responsible for 27 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in the U.S. Goodenough’s solid-state battery, by giving cars three times the range of current all-electric models and making them cheaper, could significantly reduce those emissions.

Those developments, among others, make this Earth Day an occasion for celebration – as well as, however indirectly, for protest.

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