Growing up, I was under the impression that the government was going to protect me. Maybe this came from a place of privilege, or maybe it was just pure ignorance, but I always figured that I could count on the government to take care of me. I assumed that if something was legal, it was safe. If something was really dangerous, the government would make it illegal.
It’s hard to imagine how I’ve made it nearly 20 years with this childish outlook, but this summer changed things pretty quickly. Between the work in science policy and weekly reflections with my cohort, I began to understand more of how science policy works.
I think the most jarring realization came from watching Merchants of Doubt, a documentary that details the way corporations create doubt around scientific consensus in order to continue making money. This happened with Big Tobacco and continues to happen with climate change—though scientists have widely agreed that these are both dangerous, the topics both remain a “debate” because corporations hire master debaters to create doubt about the validity of their claims. This is a wildly successful tactic, especially when playing into what people want to believe. By politicizing scientific facts, corporations are able to hinder progress or even stop important bills from being passed.
After virtually attending several congressional hearings, I also realized that most lawmakers know what they need to do. Very few congressmen truly believe climate change is a myth, and many agree we need to move to more sustainable sources of energy. However, it seems like change only happens when money is involved. Bills won’t pass unless they can simultaneously improve the economy. Even if lawmakers know the right thing to do, we can’t count on them to do it.
While this summer has made me lose my trust in the pace of progress and the altruism of the government, I’m glad I learned what I did. I’ve learned that I can’t be complacent and expect them to do the right thing. Lawmakers and federal officials will only do the right thing once it’s explained to them in a way that benefits them or after a long fight that threatens their power—I just need to learn how to do that.