I read the news this week and smiled.
It’s not every day that scientists discover a solar system in our cosmic backyard, with seven planets roughly the size of Earth. And it’s never happened that three planets orbiting one star are in the so-called Goldilocks zone, meaning they are neither too hot nor too cold to have liquid water, the key to life as far as humans know it.
The discovery captivated a lot of people — those who always are star-struck by such news, those who wonder whether we really are alone in the universe, those who like to stretch their brains, and perhaps those stressed souls dreaming of a far-off place to get away from it all.
Scientists say the new solar system, centered around a dwarf star called Trappist-1, is actually relatively close — 235 trillion miles, which sounds far until you realize that the Starship Enterprise could reach it in a matter of weeks.
Amazingly, President Donald Trump didn’t try to politicize the news (“We found seven new planets, Obama found none, Bush lost Pluto. Sad.”).
The space shocker capped a good week for scientific research. NASA, whose Spitzer Space Telescope found the seven rocks around Trappist-1, also revealed that one of its satellites picked up another big block of ice breaking off from a fast-melting glacier in Antarctica, adding to the body of knowledge on the effects of climate change.
Doctors found that brain scans of children at 6 months and 1 year old could predict with 80 percent accuracy whether they would develop autism by age 2 — a breakthrough and another blow to the discredited theory of vaccine causality. Other researchers showed that good bacteria living on human skin could be harnessed to fight bad bacteria.
But shadowing that good work is pervasive worry in the scientific community. Trump soon will present a budget for 2018-19. It’s likely to include both tax cuts and ramped-up military and homeland security spending. So something has to give — and there are ominous signs that one casualty could be funding for scientific research.
Two Trump advisers who criticized what they called NASA’s “politically correct environmental monitoring” of climate change encouraged the president to take aim at the agency’s $2 billion Earth science budget. At a recent hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) proposed a “rebalancing” at NASA in favor of space exploration, ignoring the critical role played by its satellites in climate research.
The head of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team called for a halt to EPA funding of scientific research. And a budget-cutting blueprint from the conservative Heritage Foundation, thought to be a Trump administration lodestar, suggested cutting back to 2008 funding levels for advanced scientific computer and nuclear physics research at the Department of Energy.
There is an alarming and puzzling disconnect here. As Trump ponders funding cuts, and he and other elected leaders refuse to accept well-established science on issues like climate change, our nation rightly pushes science, technology, engineering and math programs in elementary and high school as a path to success. At a time when politically inconvenient facts are routinely rejected, science provides a check and an antidote.
And so, another storm is brewing. Hundreds of scientists, also alarmed that Trump’s immigration policies could curtail the flow of scientists to this country, rallied on Feb. 19 in Boston. It was a precursor to the March for Science slated for Earth Day in April. What once was a single Web post now includes 300 events around the world, and counting.
Amazing, huh? But scientists say that kind of outpouring is becoming more common than finding a bunch of Goldilocks planets.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.