In keeping with my promise to stop writing about politics if Dems took the House and Senate (which I confess I didn’t think would happen), it’s time to talk policy. Adventures in Ethics and Science asks What’s your legislative agenda for the first hundred days?:
To streamline things a bit… let’s restrict the wish-list… to issues to do with science, education, and matters of ethics — broadly construed.
I would argue that ethics plays into any policy decision, so I’ll stick with science and education.
Item 1: Re-authorize the Endangered Species Act.
With Richard Pombo out of the House, the most vocal enemy of the ESA is no longer in charge of the committee that has to handle the Act. First passed in 1973, ESA must be reauthorized periodically. It was supposed to be reauthorized in 1992, but conflict between those who would gut its provisions and people trying to preserve it meant that the law has existed in limbo for 14 years. The bill has been funded on an annual basis while Pombo tried to put together a bill that would weaken its provisions.
It’s time for the ESA to be re-authorized and for its funding to be established long-term. I think it’s also time to provide better funding for the research on listed species. As it stands, federal scientists responsible for monitoring the species listed as endangered and threatened don’t have adequate funding to determine the current status of many species, or to implement effective recovery plans. If the goal of the ESA is truly to move species out of danger, we need to fund that goal.
Resolving some of the objections to the ESA will also cost money. As it stands, there are perceived adverse incentives for landowners to destroy endangered species habitat before a species is listed. Creating a system of incentives for preservation of land will cost money, and I’d think that increased grazing fees, mining fees, drilling fees, and logging fees for federal lands would be good ways to fund that new spending. Grazing fees especially are much lower for federal lands than for private lands, and a fee increase would be only fair.
Item 2: Remove arbitrary restrictions on stem cell research. As it stands, federal funding of stem cell research faces restrictions unlike those faced in any other field. Stem cells derived from embryos before an arbitrary date can be used in federally funded research, while those derived after that date cannot. There’s no scientific or moral basis for drawing a bright line between those parts of the calendar, and the distinction forces researchers to duplicate effort and to rely on substandard resources. President Bush has vetoed attempts at changing his foolish policy, and Congress should find a new policy that can achieve a veto-proof majority.
Item 3: Reform No Child Left Behind. An underfunded program that overemphasizes standardized tests might improve some educational metrics (though it hasn’t yet). What it won’t do is create a truly educated populace. Education is more than just a set of factoids, it’s a way of approaching knowledge and lack of knowledge. Good education infects students with a craving for new understanding. Furthermore, there’s an odd illogic in using student test scores to judge teacher quality. We know that small changes in experiences early education can have dramatic consequences on how a student approaches learning throughout her life, but NCLB judges a teacher on the basis of student performance in only one year, without regard to those students’ past experiences.
Testing is valuable and I wouldn’t have any objection to a truly national standardized test. But the Balkanized system we have now means that it’s impossible to compare educational strategies from state to state. There’s no reason that Kansans should learn differently than Minnesotans, Alabamans or Californians, and standardized testing could help states hone in on successful educational policies.
With that goal in mind, I’d shift the focus of federal education policy away from administrative responses to testing, and towards using federal resources to promote educational reforms that have worked before. This is not far from how the Education Department usually operates, and the testing that NCLB mandates should be used to identify and promote research that will improve education.
Those three would clean up bad policies of the past few years. Throw in oversight into how federal scientists have been abused and it’ll keep Congress pretty busy.
For a forward looking agenda, I’d like to see serious work on climate change, but I’ll set that aside for a different post.