by Dr. Lee Smee
Politicians are debating science funding, particularly the benefits of studying climate change. The causes and consequences of climate change are and will continue to be debated, as well as what action, if any, should be taken to address it. Yet, we need science and scientific funding to understand what the changing climate means for our health and our economy, regardless of what the ultimate causes are determined to be.
These are pictures of marshes between Corpus Christi and Rockport. The top picture, taken near Aransas Pass, shows marshes containing little grass, dominated by small bushes. These bushes are black mangroves, growing as a dwarf forest in Texas. The bottom picture shows another marsh, a few miles north in Rockport, where mangroves have not yet become established. Arrows point out the vegetation differences.
Black mangroves are a tropical species, rarely found north of Mexico prior to 1960. Mangroves are sensitive to cold so freezing weather usually kills them. But once established it takes multiple freezing events, each less than 25 degrees Fahrenheit for several consecutive days, to kill the entire tree and prevent it from regrowing.
There has not been a freeze lasting for more than five days in the Gulf of Mexico in more than 30 years, and mangrove trees have proliferated, displacing the marsh grass you see pictured. Mangroves are continuing their march north, as are a number of other tropical species. Black mangroves now cover more than 21,000 acres near Port Aransas. In the 1980s they covered less than 70 acres. We need to understand what the implications will be for fisheries and shoreline protection moving forward.
The planet is getting warmer, and regardless of whether you think warming is caused by human activity or not, there are real world changes occurring that we need to understand. We need to study the effects of climate change to understand how to better manage our fisheries, among other challenges. Perhaps warming will have positive effects allowing people to catch more fish? Perhaps it is negative and we need to catch fewer fish or target different species. Fishing in Texas generates more than $2 billion dollars annually, and managing to keep these populations healthy requires research.
Other examples of nature changing in warmer temperatures include flowers blossoming earlier than normal, causing them to be out of sync with their pollinators, which may lower crop yields and increase the spread of invasive or noxious species. Sea levels have risen about 8 inches in the past 50 years, causing coastal “sunny day” flooding at high spring tides, negatively impacting low-lying areas such as Norfolk, Virginia. The naval base there will most certainly need to be relocated further inland, at significant cost to taxpayers. Our tax dollars are used to insure and rebuild homes and businesses in low-lying, flood-prone areas which makes little sense given impending increases in coastal flooding.
I list these examples not as an alarmist, but to get you to think about climate change. Politicians can argue about the causes of climate change, but we must acknowledge and study the fact that the planet is warming so we don’t lose money and worsen the economy.
In the mangrove example, suppose that in 10 years the scientists are proven wrong and the climate suddenly cools and the mangroves die. We will still need to study the ramifications of this and other changes to target our management approaches in ways that maximize economic benefits without over-harvesting fish populations, leading to decimation of targeted species and ultimately costing Texas billions of dollars in revenue.
Please, encourage our leaders to fund science. This type of information is needed to accurately plan for the future for managing crops, fisheries, and predicting water needs and availability, among many others.
I realize taxpayers and politicians are concerned about government spending. However, scientific discovery, research, and development are economic drivers with tangible benefits. Although there are examples of research that may not seem relevant now, or times research dollars were spent in ways that seem misguided or misused, this is not the majority of funded science. And even good research can be misinterpreted by the media or individuals who do not understand its broader applications.
For scientists to receive research grants, they have to convince their peers — who also happen to be their competitors — that their ideas are worth funding. For me to recommend a grant for someone else takes potential money from me, so the system encourages thorough critique of one another, and careful monitoring by employees at government agencies that oversee the funds. If funding is granted, the scientists have to submit annual, sometimes quarterly, reports on progress and then provide a final write-up that is publicly available along with all data generated — at a minimum. Some agencies like the EPA or NIH have more stringent protocols including lab inspections and accrediting procedures along with additional reporting duties and data collection guidelines because of potential litigation when regulations are imposed or when research involves or directly affects human health. If grant money is not spent appropriately, or, if the researchers are not productive, they are no longer eligible for funding again.
Imagine if all government worked that way. Competition by the best for limited money, and if money is not used correctly, that person or business will not get funds again.
This article was originally posted at Corpus Christi's Caller-Times, a part of The USA Today Network and posted with author's permission.
Dr. Lee Smee holds a Ph.D. in biology from Georgia Tech and is currently an associate professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Chris Bell, Sandy Smee and Jim Mailhes contributed to this forum.