Pandering to the pandas

Posted: Aug 24, 2005 12:00 AM

One might expect the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to focus exclusively on advancing the health and development of humans.
But since 2001, NICHD, a subdivision of the National Institutes of Health, has provided $1,178,450 to a "Fisheries and Wildlife" professor for research focusing at least in part on "giant panda habitats" in China.

 NICHD, moreover, is not the only federal agency showering money on this professor. A National Science Foundation grant that runs from 2002 to 2006 is scheduled to give him $1,111,407 to study panda habitat, and another NSF grant in the 1990s paid him $321,055.

 The NICHD grant is titled, "Human Population/Environment Interactions (China)." "In this study," says the NIH abstract for the grant, "we view population-environment interactions as the interrelationships among five major components: human population, forests, giant panda habitats, socioeconomic and institutional factors, and government policies." The separate NSF grant is titled, "Complex Interactions Among Policies, People and Panda Habitat in the Wolong Nature Reserve Landscape."

 So far, taxpayers have granted the professor $2,610,912.

 Jianguo Liu, the scholar in question, holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Ecological Sustainability in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State. He also has been a visiting scholar at Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology, run by Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 bestseller, "The Population Bomb," spuriously predicted "hundreds of millions of people" would starve to death in the 1970s and '80s as the world ran out of food.

 On his Michigan State webpage, Liu lists one article he co-authored with Ehrlich -- "Some Roots of Terrorism," published in 2002 in Population and Environment -- and another he co-authored with Enrlich and two others, "Effects of Household Dynamics on Resource Consumption and Biodiveristy," published in 2003 in Nature.

 A 2003 NSF press release about the piece in Nature noted that Ehrlich was "renowned for his population studies" and said, "Additional support for the Liu team findings authored in the Nature paper came from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development."

 So what did taxpayers and their children get from this investment? For starters, they got the services of population-control advocates.

 In their Population and Environment piece, which was not government funded, Liu and Ehrlich decried "a cultural fundamentalism (that) surrounds the use of automobiles and SUVs, especially in the United States," and argued for conservation and population control in the cause of rooting out terrorism.

 "In the process," they wrote, "the rich could create brand new markets for the outputs of the new economy and speed the reduction of their own population sizes to more satisfactory and sustainable levels. While setting an example, the United States could also increase its pathetic level of international aid, and carefully target that aid on efforts that would change social and demographic conditions (e.g., increase employment and help to lower fertility rates) in developing countries."

 In their Nature piece -- backed by NSF- and NICHD-funded research -- Liu and Ehrlich argue that the environment is endangered not only by an increase in the number of human beings, but by an increase in the number of human households, which, because of cultural trends, tend to proliferate even where population declines. "Thus," they argued, "declining fertility rates are necessary but not sufficient to ensure reduced anthropogenic pressure on the environment and natural landscape."

 Credit them with consistency: Whether the issue is "terrorism" or the "environment," they see a threat in the proliferation of children.

 In the NFS's press release about the Nature article, Liu says: "Personal freedom and social choice may come at a huge environmental cost." He suggests, in the NSF's words, that "changes in government policies such as tax incentives for sharing housing and resources could be helpful to influence personal and household decisions and actions."

 In an exchange of emails, I asked Liu why it was appropriate for NICHD to fund a study of panda habitat. "Although there are pandas in the reserve," he said, "we have not studied pandas using the NICHD grant. Furthermore, panda habitat is part of the human environment." His two grants were "not redundant," he told me, "because the goals of the NICHD grant and the NSF grant are different, although the two projects are carried out in the same location. The NICHD project focuses on the interactions between human population and the environment, while the NSF project focuses on the interactions among people, panda habitat and policies."

 "We are generating research results that help people understand that the choices they make -- be it how many children they have, what kind of house they live in or how densely populated their neighborhoods are -- do have an impact," said Liu.

 Wonder how many voters figured this was where tax dollars would go when they elected an all-Republican government?