Lane touts climate change as ‘a national priority’

Neil Lane, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology during the Clinton Administration, spoke in Sanford Thursday.
Neil Lane, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology during the Clinton Administration, spoke in Sanford Thursday.

Climate change was a hot topic on Duke’s campus Thursday evening.

Neil Lane, who served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology during the administration of former President Bill Clinton, spoke on the history of American science, current government priorities and what he believes should be the focus of research for the future—fighting climate change. Lane, a Malcolm Gills University professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University, said that like former Vice President Al Gore, whose speech at Duke was streamed live before Lane spoke, he believes global warming to be one of the greatest challenges humanity has faced yet. 

Lane gave the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture titled, “The Uncertain Future of American Science—Coping with a Changing Climate and Changing World,” Thursday in the Sanford School of Public Policy

“I can think of no one better to discuss the future of American science,” said Sanford Dean Bruce Kuniholm.

Historically, the government-funded research that kept its people safe, starting with physical science and engineering  during World War II, Lane said. Today, it also focuses on the National Institutes of Health, providing money for biomedical research to improve the health of the American people. 

“Fifty percent of money that the government spends on research goes to biomedical research now,” said Lane, who is a former director of the National Science Foundation.

Despite scientific changes both within the country and around the world, Land said scientific progress is as important as it ever was.

“Technology requires evidence-based policies, innovative approaches and new tools,” Lane said.

He emphasized that scientists should concentrate a majority of their resources and time on fixing the problem  of global warming and eliminating the dependence on carbon-based energy.

“Although [President Barack] Obama has placed a high priority on research, new energy technology and education, the future is uncertain,” Lane said.

 Scientists combatting climate change face many obstacles, including contradicting scientific results, political biases and distortions caused by the media, he said.

“The American public is not yet convinced that climate change should be a national priority,” Lane said. “They are not ready to act.” 

Lane described several possible directions he believes the nation could go if it ignores the climate situation.  He said the U.S. could be replaced by another country, such as China, as the leader in technology. In such a scenario, the government would work to benefit current generations rather than securing resources for future ones. Without support from policy makers, scientists could be discredited by the public. And the national debt would increase alongside the dependence on fossil energy, he added.

“All of these things can happen, or we could go in the complete opposite direction,” Lane said. “There are real reasons to be optimistic.”

Lane ended the lecture by discussing the importance of older and younger generations collaborating to create a strong presence in the scientific community. Without this combined effort, he said, scientific reform proposals will never be applied and remain only ideas.


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