Hudspeth: The federal government’s role in protecting us
What we’ve all faced during the on-going coronavirus pandemic offers a strong example of why we need an effective federal government. The cutback in government teams responsible for addressing such a massive national healthcare event has left us flatfooted, and the prevalence at the national leadership level of disbelief in the effectiveness of science has extended in other directions as well.
Noted author Michael Lewis’ recent book, “The Fifth Risk,” describes a vast array of things largely unknown to the public that our federal government does to protect us and advance our interests on an incredible array of fronts. Those fronts range from food safety and weather forecasting to investment in risky but highly important technological development outside what the private sector is willing to fund. The “fifth risk” of the book’s title is the risk of governmental failure in this crucially important work.
Here’s a brief summary of the work of three key federal departments. (I’m excluding the military and federal law-enforcement agencies given our greater general awareness of what they do.)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (in addition to providing $70 billion annually in food-stamp funding dispensed through state agencies and school lunch and breakfast programs for needy children) maintains its own — and funds others’ — science labs that have increased food yields enormously over a century. It conducts meat inspections as part of its “responsibility for the safety of all meat; the FDA handles all other food” (though its inspectors have been significantly reduced in numbers over the past several years) and takes preventative measures against food-based risks (like creating a test to cull bird-flu-sickened chickens that was hugely effective). It operates a bank with $220 billion in funds to provide investment aid for new inventions like the retractable needle and to address local needs especially in rural America for everything from clean water to internet access.
Likewise, half of the Department of Energy’s annual budget (the half not devoted to “maintaining our nuclear arsenal and protecting Americans from nuclear threats”) is devoted to a variety of key research programs in basic science — including one that supervises potentially game-changing but risky investments in new technology from a $70 billion loan fund.
Thus, the Agriculture and the Energy Departments are engines driving forward cutting-edge technological progress. However, the super federal agency for promoting technological innovation is the Department of Commerce which a George W. Bush appointee admiringly termed “the Department of Science and Technology,” and Lewis calls “the Department of Information.” It has under its umbrella the Patent and Trademark Office responsible for approving (or denying) all U.S. patent applications, and accounting for fully half of its budget is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
NOAA has planes, satellites, 159 high-resolution Doppler radar sites, and the forecasting tools (created by it) that have done so much to advance weather prediction. Together these weather-forecasting innovations constitute what has been described as “one of the major intellectual achievements of the twentieth century” without which, among many other things, “no planes would fly.”
What we typically see in AccuWeather and on the Weather Channel is this information being further analyzed — or simply regurgitated — from this continuous governmental sourcing (with recent efforts directed to the Trump Administration by some of those commercial users to block general public access to this information). NOAA “does more to protect Americans than any other agency except for Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.”
Quoting another Bush appointee, “All of this data would never have existed if not for the government infrastructure that collects it…. They just don’t give themselves enough credit,” and that’s a point that Lewis makes across all of these agencies with such an impact for the good and yet about which most of us know so little.
I covered Lewis’ recitation of what our federal government does for us in significantly greater detail when his book came out 18 months ago, but what’s happened to us all in the last six months has brought his words into much sharper focus. The fact is that scientific advances, both initiated and financed by our federal government, are a key part of the technological innovation that undergirds our entire economy. They are also the monitors of our health and safety and our strongest arm of defense against many things, including viruses.
What they in turn need is our knowledge and support of their work and our understanding that our well-being, and indeed our very safety, depend on their ongoing vitality.
Stephen Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.