Interview with Zack Kopplin: Creationism is an economic threat to Louisiana

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Zack Kopplin

Zack Kopplin

I first profiled science advocate Zack Kopplin in 2010. In light of his recent successes and publicity, I figured it was time for a follow-up interview about his future plans.

Mark Moseley, The Lens: You’ve called on President Barack Obama to support a “Second Great Leap” in science research funded by $1 trillion in tax dollars. At a time of high deficits, tight budgets and a slow economy, how can you justify such an expenditure?

Zack Kopplin: My view is that the Second Giant Leap is fiscally responsible and morally indispensable.

Investing in research and development offers a huge return on investment.  For example, as the President noted in the State of the Union, “Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy.”  Imagine how much weaker our economy would be if ARPANET wasn’t created.  While $100 billion every year is a lot of money, we must think about the long term effects of this investment on our economy.

We also must think long-term about the future of our species.  I have two quotes to put this in the right context. The Scientific American recently said:

“We are one species of many on a little planet with an ancient fossil record that shows that more than 99 percent of the species that once lived are now extinct. This speaks to a tenuousness of our existence as a species—an existence we need to protect vigorously.”

Another quote is from Robert Heinlein who said “The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.”

My generation, today’s students, are going to face unprecedented challenges to our way of living and survival as a species, and the way we can overcome them is investment in rapid scientific innovation.  I hope the meteorite that exploded over Russia was a wakeup call.  The recent drought in the Midwest appears to have made more Americans accept the science behind climate change.  I’m hoping this translates into a real call for more funding for scientific innovation.

Moseley: Your home state of Louisiana hopes to see future job growth in its expanding energy and biomedical sectors, which are reliant on sound, evidence-based science. Yet you’ve said the state, with its strong religious convictions, is “addicted to creationism.” How will it ever reconcile these tensions?

Kopplin: Many people have been able to accept the science of evolution and still have faith.  Having said that, the tension between Louisiana’s addiction to creationism and the fact that Louisianians want jobs in cutting edge scientific fields is coming to a head in our fight over the LSEA.

I think we can reconcile these tensions by giving everyone a good education about science and providing them with the means to enter into some of these fields.  We will see a cultural shift eventually as we educate more and more students about evolution.

Moseley: You’ve also noted that science can prepare us to face potential future disasters such as pandemics, asteroids, and global warming. In recent years Louisiana has suffered massive hurricanes (Katrina, Rita), a Federal Flood (broken levees in New Orleans), and an out-of-control oil gusher (Macondo). The state’s irreplaceably fruitful coast continues to dissolve into rising seas, yet the Governor is a skeptic about basic scientific principles such as evolution, and a majority of the state’s Congressional delegation deny anthropogenic global warming, which contributes to rising oceans. (In fact U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R – Kenner, claimed the earth is in a “cooling period.”) If none of these disasters and threats can awaken Louisiana’s leaders to the existential crisis that only science can solve, why do you think your campaigns to repeal creationism and for a “second giant leap” will ever find success?

Kopplin: I would love to have the support of Governor Jindal and Rep. Scalise, but I believe this movement will grow much larger than any of us individually, even the governor or our members of Congress.

My generation is waking up and we’re aware of the challenges we face and the future that we want. We know that we need to do more science.  We’re going to have an overwhelming call for a second giant leap.

Also, if we’re discussing individuals, even if the governor doesn’t accept climate change, the president certainly does. I hope President Obama will help Louisiana get in a position to help repair our coasts and weather these disasters even if our leaders deny science.

Moseley: What accounts for the recent burst of national publicity? Have you received much in response to the articles about your work? How do you balance your studies at Rice with your activism for science education?

Kopplin: It has been a perfect storm that has caused the recent publicity. I had been researching voucher programs across the country and that was published at the same time as io9 published a viral article calling for a second giant leap.  Everything has just snowballed.

Balancing work and Rice is tough, not just because of the workload, but because there are some days where I have class, but just need to be in Austin or Baton Rouge and I have no choice but to miss class.  I plan to take some time off to establish infrastructure for this campaign (a nonprofit, PAC, a large grassroots network) so I can run this campaign full time and travel more easily when I return as a student. I’m aiming for a Thiel Fellowship right now, but that’s stiff competition, and if I don’t get it, my plans are still the same.

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