The search for truth — it is both the cornerstone of our University of Wisconsin and the basis of all science.
Both have come under attack in Gov. Scott Walker's budget.
The budget Walker submitted to the Legislature struck the sentence "Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth" from the law spelling out the UW System's mission. Walker later backtracked when he came under extensive criticism for his proposal. He claimed that it was a "drafting error" despite the fact that his administration had repeatedly requested exactly that change (in writing, no less). Perhaps Walker made his "drafting error" when he was flying in a helicopter with Brian Williams.
While Walker has retreated under intense criticism from his repeal of truth-seeking in the UW mission statement, he is charging full speed ahead with his repeal of truth-seeking in the formation of environmental policy. His budget would eviscerate the Bureau of Scientific Services at the Department of Natural Resources, eliminating many of the scientists who research environmental issues.
Who needs the facts? They can be so inconvenient.
In years past, our DNR has had a proud nationwide reputation as one of the best resource management agencies in the country. Much of that respect was earned because environmental decisions in Wisconsin were based, at least in part, on sound scientific research. George Meyer, who is highly respected for his stewardship of the agency when he was DNR secretary, calls that scientific research on outdoor issues "the guts of natural resource management."
The scientists who will be fired by Walker not only went to college — they graduated. Most of them have advanced degrees in fields such as water quality, public health, forestry and wildlife. Those scientists provide unbiased research to decision-makers. Of course, sometimes the information that emerges when scientists search for the truth conflicts with the designs of politicians and campaign contributors. That's likely what has led to the Scientific Services Bureau being put on Walker's chopping block.
The research that may well have finally put the scientists in Walker's cross hairs is their recent analysis identifying environmental problems that might be caused by the proposed massive open pit mine in the pristine Penokee Range of northern Wisconsin.
Their extensive report on the mine didn't take a position on whether the mine should be permitted. Instead, it took a scientific look at the water resources, wetlands and forests of the region and how the mine might impact them. According to press reports, "The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ research bureau produced the report to brief agency regulators on what the scientific literature says about extensive testing and environmental monitoring that are typically needed to prevent serious damage from acid runoff into streams and mercury emissions into the air."
While such an analysis is part of the standard procedure for evaluating a mine application, a lobbyist for Gogebic Taconite, the out-of-state mining company seeking the permit, immediately attacked the scientists. Not irrelevant, perhaps, is the fact that the mining company had forked over a whopping $700,000 for GOP campaigns.
Who needs to make decisions about our air, water and land based on science when you can make those decisions based on which corporation has given you a big campaign check?
Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as the vice president of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.
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