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The Science of Budgeting

The State of Illinois flunks its science test 

Illinois Times

July 20, 1992

A table-pounder about proposed cuts in the budgets of Illinois's three scientific surveys. I did work for the parent agency of the surveys and for the foundation established a few years earlier to support their work. (See here and articles published by the Nature of Illinois on the Nature & the Environment page.) This might be taken as a biasing factor in my support. It would be more accurate to conclude that my admiration for the work done by the parent agency of the surveys and by the foundation established a few years earlier to support their work biased me in favor of working with them.


These cuts were only the first, by the way. For a generation, the State of Illinois has been starving public science as done by the surveys and the Illinois State Museum. Idiots.

Small changes have been made to the original to improve clarity.


The headline news was that the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs is to lose a reported 201 positions statewide, 116 of them in Springfield. Apart from easing the parking crunch downtown, these cuts will little affect the common weal. Meanwhile, vastly more wounding cuts were being made and hardly anyone noticed. 


In his initial proposal to the General Assembly, Gov. James "Jim" Edgar cut the overall budget of the Department of Energy and Natural Resources by some 22 percent over FY92 levels. Among the agencies affected are Illinois's three scientific surveys that have been studying the state's water, geology, and natural history for more than a century, and the much newer Hazardous Waste Research and Information Center.


The state's public scientists enjoy rather a higher reputation abroad than do our politicians, being well-represented in journals and professional societies. Not long ago, one of the Natural History Survey's veteran staffers, Dr. Glen Sanderson, won the Aldo Leopold Award from the national Wildlife Society. Sanderson is the third Illinois survey scientist to be so recognized; no other institution is represented more than once among the Leopold winners.


Sanderson has devoted much of his working life to the study of raccoons. Raccoons are of course intelligent and adaptable creatures. A General Assembly filled with raccoons instead of humans would be an improvement in courage as well, although they would be hard on the furniture. Yet a man who studies raccoons must often be met with giggle at parties, while the man who makes himself expert in sheltering the income of the rich from taxation will be deferred to as a statesman.


Alas, agencies that employ people who study raccoons will suffer the indifference, if not the derision, of what the world at large foolishly praises as practical men. The situation at the Natural History Survey is typical. Inflation-adjusted revenues have not risen for a decade, in spite of continuing demands for information about crop pests or the control of zebra mussels that infest power plants and water treatment facilities, indeed about any issue where the natural sciences intersect with that least natural of science, economics.


While their strength has been applied science, there is much basic work that the surveys are uniquely equipped to do. The NHS has been studying flora and fauna since 1858 and still do not have a comprehensive view of how many species are native to Illinois. (This is mainly because so little is known about such lower orders as bacteria, nematodes, and protozoa.)


This collection of base-line data on ecosystems, land use, and air and water quality is among the most essential work being done by the surveys. Like so much of the work that government does, data collection is more important than exciting. But there is no way to know whether we are making progress in cleaning up the environment—or in degrading it—if we don't know what the state of the environment was when we start cleaning.


The friends of the surveys have for some years been attempting to build a constituency for science and common sense in Illinois. Pre-eminent among them was the recently deceased Gaylord Donnelley, an industrialist who made me regret most of what I've said about millionaires. The vehicle for this miracle was an organization known initially as the Society for the Illinois Scientific Surveys, now known more euphoniously as the Nature of Illinois Foundation.


The foundation publishes a handsome magazine, "The Nature of Illinois," which has gotten better since I quit writing for it. The current issue alone contained news that the state water survey's method of measuring acid rain had been adopted by a major international testing chemistry testing body; that the monthly survey of weather is used by commodity traders; that deep sources of oil lie beneath Illinois, holding the promise that larger pools exist in similar age rocks; that the Hazardous Waste Research and Information Center has successfully tested a ultrafiltration process that reduces by 99 percent the amount of polluted water produced during degreasing by a Bloomington metal manufacturer.


Edgar's proposed budget reductions would have meant the loss of some 60 state-funded positions at the three surveys and the Hazardous Waste Center. The Madigang [Speaker Mike Madigan’s faction in the Illinois House] attempted to slice a further twenty positions, but those cuts were eventually restored after lobbying by the Illinois Environment Council and several industry representatives—an unusual alliance that suggests something of the ecumenical nature of the work these four agencies do.


The restoration of funds to the level of Edgar's initial proposal was, notes foundation executive director John Schmitt, "a small victory." The amount of money involved is laughably small—one-twentieth of one percent of the total state budget, according to the foundation. The state is behaving like a family that, hearing that the bank plans to foreclose on the house, cancels its subscription to Newsweek to improve their cash flow.


One of the drawbacks in our new careerist state government is that government is all that the people running it know anything about. Eighty members of the Illinois House could tell you what Mike Madigan likes for lunch but there probably are not three members who could explain the rudiments of the carbon cycle or any of the other concepts on which the economy of this state depends. In this they are perfectly representative of the public at large; a poll of 388 Illinoisans done for a new energy exhibit being built by the foundation and the Chicago Academy of Sciences found than only 10 to 20 percent understood the series of transformations that convert solar energy into plants, plants into coal, coal into steam, steam into electricity, and electricity into ordinary household light. Such ignorance suggests that the state ought to be spending more money on science (or perhaps on science education) rather than less.


Governors and legislators usually vote for ignorance, since they don't know how much they don't know.  Of all the professional groups represented in the General Assembly, for example, lawyers are by far the most numerous, for roughly the same reasons that there tend to be more flies than butterflies on a cow pad. Scientists and engineers are as rare as poets in the corridors of power. Forest Etheredge, the Aurora Democrat who sits on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, is a geologist; he (along with members of Champaign-Urbana's hometown delegation) led the fight to protect what was left of the surveys' budgets, but he is leaving the legislature after this session.


"The lesson to be learned from all this," says John Schmitt, "is that we have to continue to raise awareness of what they're doing." They have a way to go. At last report, the foundation's membership after nine years consists of roughly 1,000 people, which will give you some idea how large is the audience for intelligent public policy in the sciences in this state. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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