The Science of Budgeting
The State of Illinois flunks its science test
July 20, 1992
A table-pounder about proposed cuts in the budgets of Illinois' 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 on the Nature & the Environment page published by the Nature of Illinois.) 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.
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' 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 serious scholar.
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 regarding crop pests or the control of zebra mussels that infest power plants and water treatment facilities or 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 measuring.
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 source of oil lies 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 Edgar's introduced levels 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 10–20 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 rather than less.
Governors and legislators usually vote for stupidity; it is one issue they know something about. 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 led the fight to protect what was left of the surveys' budgets, along with Champaign-Urbana's hometown delegation, but he is leaving the legislature after this session.
"The lesson to be learned from all this," says 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. □