Rarely do two news items arrive over the transom in such close proximity and perfect juxtaposition as they did last week.
First up was the announcement that three students from the Half Hollow Hills school district had won the prestigious Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, earning a $100,000 scholarship and beating out teams of other accomplished young scientists from around the country.
That was followed by an Associated Press analysis that found the Trump administration is not nominating scientists for science positions. Nearly 60 percent of 43 nominees for science-related positions thus far do not have a doctorate or even a master’s degree in a science or health field, according to the AP, part of the disdain this administration has shown for science.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, within moments.
The Half Hollow Hills trio — juniors Jillian Parker, Arooba Ahmed and Jiachen Lee — inspire with their passion and rigor. Their project title — which includes words like cilium, centrosome, cytokinesis and scission — is incomprehensible to lay folks. But their discovery is universally understandable and clearly significant. They identified a protein called CCDC11 that had not been known to play a role in cell division, a finding that could assist researchers working on cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, among others.
Contrast the frisson from that discovery with the dispiriting finding that none of President Donald Trump’s seven nominees for scientific positions in the Department of Energy has even a master’s degree in a science-related field.
And that Energy Secretary Rick Perry has a bachelor’s degree in animal science (the previous two secretaries had physics doctorates and one won a Nobel Prize).
And that Trump’s nominee for chief scientist at the Agriculture Department, politics professor Sam Clovis, has no academic credentials in agriculture or science (and withdrew after being linked to the Russia investigation).
And that Trump, who’s called climate change a Chinese hoax, has proposed huge cuts, in the billions of dollars, to vital scientific research across numerous agencies.
And that Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt says he’s almost ready to launch his “red team, blue team” climate change debate pitting established climate science against fringe points of view, part of the administration’s general strategy of labeling as politicized any science with which it disagrees.
And that the Interior Department ordered a halt to research on the health risks of mountaintop-removal coal mining, despite a need for more information given other studies suggesting that people living near such coal-mining operations were suffering increased rates of cancer and birth defects.
And on it goes.
When you strive to make America great again, it’s important to understand what made America great in the first place. And science had a huge role in that.
Science put man on the moon, created the internet, sequenced the human genome and helped the United States become the world’s dominant military power through weapons it developed.
Science raised our standard of living, put America in the forefront of innumerable industries worldwide and, through corporations like Grumman, lifted thousands of Long Islanders into the middle class.
And it was the constellation of scientists, facilities, funding and entrepreneurs in this country that attracted waves of scientists from other countries that helped give America its energy and vitality.
I hope that as the Half Hollow Hills students and their like-minded peers take their places in that pipeline, they find a nation that still is hospitable to their skills and dreams.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.