Of Particular Significance

Not As Painless As They’d Have You Believe

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 05/15/2013

I’m still seeing articles in the news media (here’s one) that say that the majority of Americans think the recent sequester in the US federal budget isn’t affecting them. These articles implicitly suggest that maybe the sequester’s across-the-board cuts aren’t really doing any serious damage.

Well, talk to scientists, and to research universities and government laboratories, if you want to hear about damage.

I haven’t yet got the stomach to write about the gut-wrenching destruction I’m hearing about across my own field of particle physics — essential grants being cut by a quarter, a third, or altogether; researchers being forced to lay off long-standing scientific staff whose expertise, of international importance, is irreplaceable; the very best postdoctoral researchers considering leaving the field because hard-hit universities across the country won’t be hiring many faculty anytime soon… There’s so much happening simultaneously that I’m not sure how I can get my head around it all, much less convey it to you.

But meanwhile, I would like to point you to a strong and strongly-worded article by Eric Klemetti, a well-known blogger and professor who writes at WIRED about volcanoes.  Please read what he wrote, and consider passing it on to those you know.  Everyone needs to understand that the damage that’s being done now across the U.S. scientific landscape, following a period of neglect that extends back many years before the recession, will last a generation or more, if it’s not addressed.

These deep, broad and sudden cuts are a short-sighted way of saving money.  Not only do they waste a lot of money already spent, the long-term cost of the permanent loss of expertise, and of future science and technology, is likely to exceed what we’ll save.  It’s not a good approach to reducing a budget.  So tell your representatives in Congress, and anyone who will listen: Scientific research isn’t excess fat to be chopped off crudely with a cleaver; it’s fuel for the nation’s future, and it needs wiser management than it’s receiving.

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73 Responses

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  2. @MattStrassler
    Unlike the inital press conference and the later crucifiction of Pons and Fleischman, there are increasing evidence of actual unexplained heat production in Low Energy Nuclear Reactions and there is even a published theory by Widom and Larsen to explain it as revere beta decay in many body quantum lattices, followed by neutron capture reactions. There fore there is no actual cold fusion and the whole thing is consistent with known theory. Can you review the field for every one since many people wrongly assume the whole thing is fraud while some thing realy unusual with potential revolutionary implications is going on

  3. And I understand very well the damage it will do to science in Amercia for a generation. It doesn’t matter, the price has to be paid. Universities have to go back to fair and balanced places with faculties with diverse points of view, or the entire university system needs to be torn down.

    1. What you say Andy is harsh, but I think it does contain some insight into the problems facing not just science itself, but the way science is being done.

      The problem goes far beyond what is happening in the USA, as the same model is being employed in most countries across the globe. As the observational data improves, more and more of the scientific budget has been diverted towards propping up the standard model, instead of developing new paradigms. The whole raft of ‘post normal’ science is looking more and more like a game of Whac-A-Mole.

      For science to thrive in future a way must be found to get back to real Popperian science quickly, without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Until this happens, expect further spending cuts.

      1. This point of view, and those espoused by Andy, are part of the problem. You’re not working in the subject, and you’re reading anti-science propaganda and spouting it back without actually understanding how things work. [I suspect you get a lot of this from Peter Woit, who doesn’t work in the subject, even though he pretends to.] You have no evidence to defend your view, and you can’t have any, because it’s so completely wrong. And the more people think what you think, the more damage will be done to the scientific process.

        For one thing, you say “science” but in your comment you concentrate on particle physics. This article is not about particle physics per se. I’m talking about the whole scientific enterprise in the U.S. Even if what you’ve just said about the Standard Model were correct (and it’s not), what about all the revolutionary developments in genetics or in materials or in astronomy? Does that strike you as Whack-a-Mole?

        For another, you need to remember that in science people become famous by overturning the paradigm. There is always, at every period in science, a core of people who move forward with “evolutionary” developments, but there are exciting scientists who are pushing revolutionary idea.s Both types of scientists are crucial to progress. Most revolutionary ideas are wrong, and are, in that sense, an apparent waste — but they’re not a waste, because they keep the discussion fresh. Meanwhile, only if careful and precise measurements testing existing paradigms are performed can the problems be identified that lead to revolutions. I am sure you would have argued that looking for the ether drift, as Michelson-Morley did, was a waste of time; it was just a simple test of the Standard Model of its day.

        The real situation in science is far more subtle than you seem to think. There are many more people thinking outside the box than you believe. And when the science budget is cut in a draconian way, the people who suffer the most are the young, bright, new thinkers.

  4. Oh – and if Einstein did his best work while he had a real job (his miracle year while he was a patent clerk), perhaps more scientists could follow his lead.
    As a follow up to my above comment – surely most of you must realize the damage to your cause guys like Ward Churchill, Paul Krugman and Elizabeth Warren do to your cause. To most Americans, you’re all just professors.

    1. Einstein was a graduate student trying to pay the bills. He did not do this by choice; he was disliked by one of the faculty at his university and did not receive a teaching fellowship. And he was extraordinary; most of us, in our early 20s, would have lost heart and failed, if put in a similar situation. Trying to emulate Einstein is a fool’s errand, much like budding writers trying to emulate Shakespeare or budding composers trying to emulate Mozart. You have to be yourself, not someone else.

      Moreover, half of Einstein’s best work (general relativity and insights into quantum mechanics) was done while he was a professor… a few years after he got his Ph.D.

      Meanwhile, you will find that the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners were professors or budding professors when they did their research. And those who were not were usually employed by companies to do their research. Very, very few were doing research on the side while working a “real job”.

      So yet again, to score political points, you suggest a direction for American science that would destroy it. This is what you call patriotism, I suppose.

      1. Matt writes:
        “So yet again, to score political points, you suggest a direction for American science that would destroy it. This is what you call patriotism, I suppose.”

        Aren’t you also scoring politcal points by blaming the cuts on “sequester” and giving a pass to the entitlement spending which is FAR more responsible for squeezing out science?

        You make very valid and correct points. But the other side has points as well. Before WWII big science was largely done by foundations. The Hale telescope, for example, was build by the Rockefeller foundation.

        If you want (as we all do) adaquate funding for basic research then you need to: 1) refore mandatory spending (entitlements) and 2) work to make funding sources more broad base.

        1. You’re still seeing this as about “sides”. You’re not reading what I wrote; you’re reading what you want me to have written, so it would be an easier target.

          First, both sides of the aisle supported the sequester as a tool for dealing with their inability to find common ground. We can debate who is responsible for there being no common ground, but that wasn’t my point.

          Second, entitlements, defense outlays and financial mismanagement are responsible for our current budget mess. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

          But that doesn’t change the fact that everyone will suffer if we allow this to take down this country’s increasingly-threatened leadership in science. Who will benefit when the new materials for the next decades of technology are developed in China? Republicans? or Democrats?

          As soon as there were flight delays — a non-partisan issue — Republicans and Democrats got together and resolved the issue. Well, uncontrolled damage to science is a non-partisan issue, and Republicans and Democrats had better get together and mitigate the damage before we all suffer for it.

          1. I think what you wrote is “this is really really bad for our future and we need to increase it NOW”. I agree.
            First, the language you use does have political overtones. Blaming sequester for a far more serious and long term problem, the rather snide reference to patriotism above, and other comments say much about your politics. I also disagree in that it IS the point. You will not see adequate funding for basic research unless you address ALL the reasons it is being cut. Note I am saying this as someone who agrees with you.
            Second, most of the items you cite are not responsible for the current mess. Defense spending (which BTW richly deserves to be cut) as a percentage of GDP is at historical lows and has been for 20 years. (See http://thenumbersguru.blogspot.com/2008/10/defense-spending-as-percent-of-gdp-1940.html). The politicians you support use that argument to deflect but cutting defense will not provide anything more than temporary support to science.
            Flight delays where easy to take care of because they where artificial and political in origin. When the politics changed, the situation changed without changing the amount of money spent. That is not what we are asking for.
            Simply calling for more money without addressing the causes will not work. It will not get us what we want. Inaccurate assessment of the underlying causes will result in ineffective strategies. It will not work and will not get us what we want.
            There is a growing part of the budget (entitlements) and a shrinking part (discressionary). Unless and until you address the growing and mandatory part, it is pointless to call for more funding on the discressionary part. Doing so is like demanding that a heavy smoker’s lungs work better without asking him to stop smoking.
            Again, I am saying this as someone who agrees with you.

            1. Did I call for more money?

              I called for better management. I do think that too much money has been taken out of science relative to other things over the years, so I would prefer less money be taken now since so much has already departed. And I do think cutting science actually tends to hurt the budget long-term rather than help it, because it’s a form of investment; it’s a little like cutting your budget at home across-the-board instead of keeping your money in your best stocks. But I’m not calling for there to be no cuts at all.

              As for the snide remark over patriotism — look at what I was responding to! Just because I disagree with someone with strong right-wing views does not mean I hold strong left-wing views. This is the problem moderates always face — constantly attacked on both sides, and blamed by both sides for views that they don’t actually hold.

              In particular, I did not say anything anywhere, in the article or the comments, suggesting that entitlements don’t need to be cut. But this is not a subject appropriate to this website.

        1. “Did I call for more money?”

          Then what do you want specifically? Will you be happy with 2012 levels adjusted for inflation?

          Again, I completely agree that the cuts are penny wise and pound foolish. GDP will be smaller 25 years from now because of this. That is why it is critical that we understand and address causes. Sequester is NOT a cause, it is a symptom. Blog posts that address symptoms and not causes will not be effective.

          Entitlements are the only parts of the budget that are growing. Unless and until that is addressed we will not accomplish what we want. Tax increases, much needed defense cuts and everything else only buy a little time.

          Patriotism… I understand your point but there are those on the left with basically the same view (e.g. feminist railing against the patriarchal scientific method). As to you being a moderate, most people think they are moderates. I suspect you are solidly leftist but in the middle of the people you associate with. Just as Andy may well consider himself a moderate because of the people he associates with.

          Finally if entitlement cuts are not appropriate to this website, then why is the sequester appropriate? Both are immediate causes of what you object to.

          1. I agree that the sequester is a symptom, but I don’t agree that calling attention to the damage that it is causing across science has no use, since most people are unaware that this is a consequence.

            Meanwhile I cannot, on this website, address topics in which I am not even close to an expert, such as the web of entitlement programs. I especially don’t know how to deal with the fact that the health care situation has been out of control for decades, and this is a primary cause of the problem; but the Obama administration and the Democrats and Republicans in Congress blew a terrific opportunity a couple of years ago to grab some bipartisan control. I don’t even know what the Republicans are proposing, and what came out of the Democratic-led Congress was a mess. But the one thing I know for sure is that I do not understand the health-care system well enough to understand how the current health-care law will impact the US budget long-term. So what useful could I say about this?

            Meanwhile, the sequester makes an immediate impact on my career and the careers of those around me; it makes a measurable effect that I can report. I’m not a world’s expert about it, but I do know first-hand some of what’s going on.

            Although the two issues are linked, the sequester is a very bad way of addressing the problems the country faces, because it is a blunt instrument. Cuts are one thing; across-the-board cuts are another.

        2. That was late in his career, after almost all of his important work was over. His main work after 1905 was done at European universities.

          Moreover, the Institute for Advanced Study is hardly a model one can adopt for science as a whole. It can support a small number of theoretical physicists, but no experimental physicists at all — and experiments are the expensive part, both in materials and in personnel. So what’s your point?

          1. Matt, I accept your reasoning on sequester vs entitlement for your blog.

            However, I would urge you to learn something about mandatory spending. It is going to kill almost all science funding in this country over the next 10-20 years. Since we agree the sequester is a symptom then surely it is to your advantage to understand the disease for self preservation if nothing else.

            There is no need to become an expert (nobody is) but it is vital you understand the scale of the problem. You rightly object to mindless spending and policies like the sequester, but this is no different just larger.

            BTW, if you want to know the Republican proposal on health care there is none any more than there is a monolithic Democratic proposal. However this article (although written by a Democrat) is a conservative approach and is the finest article on health care policy ever written: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/09/how-american-health-care-killed-my-father/307617/

            (Apologies in advance for the link since it is clearly outside the scope but you brought it up! 🙂 )

          2. Einstein’s most important work was done while in Europe. From 1933 on, he was at the IAS, and we could argue that his last important work of that period was the EPR paper (as it name indicates, it was a collaboration with Podolsky and Rosen), which was important as a critique to certain aspects of quantum mechanics, quantum entanglement in particular.

            His last “positive” papers on quantum mechanics were focused on quantum statistical mechanics, like absortion and stimulated emmission of photons (the theory behind lasers and masers), and what eventually became known as Bose-Einstein Condensates, that is, the theory that predicts the behaviour of composite bosons at low temperatures.

            Kind regards, GEN

  5. I love science and support science funding in theory, but in practice I’d like nearly all of you to lose your jobs. There are 2 main reasons scientists have lost public support for funding, both of which are related to politics and the takeover of education by the left. This has had 2 results. One, universities are basically indoctrination factories for left-wing thought and are intolerant of any ideas that disagree (look at any disinvited/disrepsected/shouted over conservative speaker invited to any campus in America). To many Americans, professors are the enemy. Whether by omission or comission, you have allowed yourselves to be seen as hyperpartisans and there are large numbers of Americans who resent you for it and could care less whether you get funding or not (and your side ain’t so supportive of science unless it’s radical environmentalism – it was Obama who killed NASA). Two, the vast majority of American high school and college graduates don’t know the first thing about science and math and have no desire to. As long as their iphone and facebook work and they can keep up with the Kardassians and jay z and beyonce, they are happy. They don’t even know what science funding is (typical low information voters) and the left wants to keep them that way. You guys are merely reaping what you have sown.

    1. Let me get this straight. On the basis of some left-wing trends in humanities and social science departments, you’d advocate throwing out the entire edifice of America’s science leadership through its research universities? What kind of idiocy and insanity are you espousing?

      Science is not a partisan issue. Loss of American scientific leadership will permanently damage the economy, threaten our national security, and cause many of our best and brightest to leave to work in other countries. This is already happening (several of my American colleagues now work in Europe and I’ve been considering it for years as my own career has been collapsing here.)

      As for political indoctrination; I was not asked my political views when I was hired at any stage in my career, and I don’t espouse political views in my work. Meanwhile, you make insane statements like the only thing that matters to scientists is “radical environmentalism” (solar energy is radical environmentalism?) and that Obama killed NASA (in the midddle of the night, with a knife). Which of us, in fact, is reaping what he sows? When it becomes impossible to discuss facts — because people on either edge of the political spectrum make nothing but irresponsible statements to score political points, as though that’s what counts — that’s when a nation stops solving its problems.

  6. To correct an apparent inconsistency in my final remark. I am distinguishing between “Teaching” with a big “T” as a broad social policy and teaching by an individual professor, with a little “t.”

  7. Some general responses.

    1. I agree, and advocate, that we must look at these social matters with a scientific eye, there is too much emotion and not enough Positivism. In that vein …

    2. We appear to forget the simple fact that the notion of “debt” is a human social construct, it is an illusion.

    3. Further, debt is a dangerous and oppressive idea. It is the current means of constrain and coercion.

    4. Debt is the cause of unmerited privilege and class. We are all better off eliminating the idea entirely.

    5. Politics is futile, the product of inevitable behaviors of individuals in groups.

    6. Advocacy is the means by which the ship of society may be steered. Hence my comments here.

    7. We are wrong to glorify bureaucrats in the public narrative, it institutionalizes bad ideas and affords inappropriate trust (through a false sense of familiarity).

    8. “The Vote” is an impotent pacifier. Our participation irrelevant at this scale. We live in no kind of “democracy” and we are not “free.” When this period is recorded in history it will be recorded as one of the most effective periods of servitude ever recorded.

    9. As a practical matter, a public administration appears necessary, the public health and well being is in the interest of us all, and the courts are necessary as a means to resolve disputes.

    10. In that light, I firmly believe in the right of dissent and a fair hearing. Dissent is the means for concerned individuals to ensure the integrity of their environment. (This, I believe, is the “true” definition of “democracy”).

    11. I believe a generous society is to be preferred, one in which it is the responsibility of individuals, not States, to distribute wealth.

    12. Finally, the education system, which perpetuates the current state of affairs, needs to be deconstructed, “Teaching” eliminated, in favor of sending professorial missionaries and opportunities to learn into society.

    Oh, and I advocate teaching foundations before we teach the applied, it is much more interesting.

  8. Matt: “…essential grants being cut by a quarter, a third, … the very best postdoctoral researchers considering leaving the field.”

    Is this any lost for the country? This question can be easily answered with a simple test. For two models below,

    First, Higgs mechanism with a SM Higgs — it will lead the physics into a dead-end. The hope of any light for a new physics needs tens billions dollars or more, perhaps way beyond the LHC.

    Second, Model A — it gives masses to all (quark, lepton [including neutrinos] and all the whatnot). It can also give theoretical calculations for α (electron fine structure constant), Cabibbo and Weinberg angles, Neff and many more.

    This is a very simple IQ test. Which model will those researchers (in bio-science, mathematics, or all the whatnot) choose? If one chooses the first, then he is not worthy of a single penny of the tax dollar. He should be cut out from getting all tax dollars even without the sequester.

    Besides wasting over one billion dollars over the past 8 years, it is now all clear that the Tevatron should be shutdown in 2003 as it did absolutely nothing for the country for those 8 long years. The cutout the SSC was the smartest move that the US congress ever made. This type of wise move ensured US a strong economy (with only a need for a sequester) in comparing to the bankrupted Europe.

    1. These are completely absurd statements.

      To say the Tevatron was a scientific waste because it didn’t discover anything after 2003 neglects the fact that it told us what *isn’t* there. If we didn’t know what isn’t in nature in those energy ranges, we’d have a lot more trouble interpreting LHC data. It is not true that everything that Tevatron can do, LHC can do; certain very important studies can only be done, and were only done, at the Tevatron. Moreover, the Tevatron was a crucial testing ground for many of the techniques that we use at the LHC; they wouldn’t work nearly so well now if the Tevatron had been canceled in 2003. So this is the kind of short-sighted and frankly stupid remark that is exactly what causes people with limited science education to make terrible mistakes. The Tevatron wasn’t a grand success, but it was certainly a good thing for the science — and we needed it to have an optimized LHC. Gaining experience in one experiment has real benefits for the next!

      As for SSC: ten billion dollars over 10 years in an economy of 10 trillion per year is what? It’s 0.01%. The cutting of the SSC had a negligible effect on the US economy, as has the building of the LHC on the European economy. The biggest effects on the US economy have been the expenditures of several trillions over 10 years on the Iraq and Afghan wars, and even more (in the US and Europe), mismanagement of the financial system. To suggest that the direct costs of particle physics has a measurable negative effect on the economy is beyond ridiculous. (And of course there are indirect benefits from advances in materials and computing that are generated by particle physics experimental development.)

      1. Thanks, Matt.

        There was a debate in 2003 about whether kept the Run II going. I was hoping that the particle physics could go a different direction at that juncture. But, after one year shutdown, Run II resumed, and I was disappointed. So, I made a rant here. You are exactly right that those 8 years did produce many good results.

        I was a bit disappointed when US Congress decided to cancel the SSC. But, it is obviously now that SSC will not do much better than the LHC, that is, I am no longer disappointed. But, your economic analysis is correct.

  9. I am very disappointed that Matt Strassler apparently believes that the US Federal Budget not only should, but must, be cut.
    It will be far harder to stop cuts to science if the budget is being cut than if it is not. You are saying don’t cut science cut something else (such as entitlements). Far louder voices are saying don’t cut X (often, entitlements) cut something else (such as, often, science).
    Do you really believe that if push comes to shove that science is going to be let off easy while stuff that the majority of the public is relying on to keep themselves and their parents out of poverty in old age (social security) or from going bankrupt (or worse) if they get really sick during the period of their lives when getting really sick at some point is very likely (medicare), gets cut instead?
    It behooves anyone who cares about science to think very hard about whether it is in fact actually necessary to cut the budget, and whether the people who passionately oppose cuts to each part of the budget (whether they are happening now or are clearly on the political agenda of both major parties for the future) might do better to team up and support each other in opposing ALL cuts to the budget.
    As one of several important points I could make against the notion that cutting the budget is some kind of necessity, I will point out that the federal governments debt burden is lower now than it has been since 1973 (see http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/national-debt-really-too-big-183730367.html). The debt burden is, of course, the percentage of US GDP that the federal government has to pay in interest on it’s debt. This burden has nearly halved since the late 80s/early 90s. Evidently, deep permanent cuts to the budget were not needed then to keep the interest burden from spiraling out of control and impoverishing future generations ( apparently the federal government borrows from people with time machines – interest payments are a redistribution among the people alive at a given time). Rather the interest burden from the federal debt halved – now that it has halved, cuts are even more unneeded now than they were then.

    1. I work for a small wall-street (boo-hiss) technology company that among other things provides software that allows traders to execute transactions. I am clearly the science nut in the group. I love physics and cosmology and am generally amazed by technology. From time to time I inform the group of the latest developments in these fields. I don’t pretend to be an economic expert, but we do employ three Harvard graduates, one of whom studied economics and mathematics. I asked him about the article you reference. He told me that by the ‘logic’ of that article we should be ok to borrow trillions of more dollars then we even do now, in fact if interest on the money were zero (and it almost is) we can literally borrow a near infinite amount and be just fine right?

      Except for one thing – you will destroy the economy. You seem like a bright guy, and I’m tired and have other work to do, so I will leave it to you to figure out why…

  10. It’s easier to destroy that to create. For those that believe in “small government”, this fact is their trump card – what others struggle for years to build, they can tear down in months.

  11. “One day, sir, you may tax it.” Tell people about how Faraday and his cohorts started the electrical revolution. Then we miniaturized Gutenberg’s gift and we have the digital revolution. That transistor came from research, not to mention the vacuum tubes from earlier that same century. Let’s not talk about the bomb. Android (even some Windows concepts) came from Unix, a collaboration between industrial research and state universities. The biggest win of all was the World Wide Web, released into the wild by (wait for it) CERN.

    The real political lever is to ask where they want the next discovery to be made. It’s not the best incentive, but it resonates on their frequency.

  12. It goes even fundamentally deeper. So many people I know are more concerned about checking their bookface page every few minutes than bothering to read, study or heavens forbid try to understand how things really work. I’m just an ordinary engineer, a mere mechanic of math, nowhere near a true scientist. But I’ve seen the thought processes of our society become ever lower with time. And this is reflected by those occupying our government and their attitude towards science. Our current occupant of the White House blew an opportunity to set a national tone. He could have perhaps announced a manned mission to Mars, something everyone could understand and rally behind. But I guess you can’t expect a lot from just another lawyer who got lucky in politics. Maybe we just need more technical types elected in government..

    1. When Obama got elected the first time, I thought he was the one who got lucky in politics. But, he did the Obamacare which was an impossible task by many Presidents (Clinton, Bush, etc.). He is now ready to do the second impossible, the immigration reform. Are those right things to do? Did he do them right? These are beside the point. They both are impossible for other Presidents.

      The sequester is again the most courageous thing a President can do. True science does not come from money but from the desire of seeking the truth.

      Richard P. Feynman said, “There is a most profound and beautiful question associated with the observed coupling constant, … about 137.03597… . It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it. … It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: … . You might say the “hand of God” wrote that number, and ‘we don’t know how He pushed his pencil.’ …we don’t know what kind of dance to do on the computer to make this number come out, without putting it in secretly!”

      But, we just learned that this greatest damn mystery of Feynman was just a joke as it can be derived by anyone. Is any kind of money able to change people’s attitude on joking about the truth?

      1. “But, we just learned that this greatest damn mystery of Feynman was just a joke as it can be derived by anyone. Is any kind of money able to change people’s attitude on joking about the truth?”

        Feynman’s mystery was never a joke. And one with a keen interest in physics and an open mind can derive the factor 1/137; and it will not cost those open minded persons a dime. The precise value measured is more difficult to appreciate and calculate.

  13. Even before the sequester, America was no longer seeking “the best”. I can make a long list on this but decided not to.

    The physics community is not doing any better than the US government. The litmus test for the final physics could be as simply as “deriving the α, electron fine structure constant” theoretically. Yet, we are spending billions dollars on the Higgs dancing and claiming the Higgs-like as the “Higgs”, a great saving for quite a few pixels.

  14. Research projects like the LHC are so massive that only countries can “pick up the tab”, so, governments must be active and permanent players in the investment on science, specially for basic research.

    1. Such arguments, “X cannot be funded without public funds directed by a public administration,” are misleading and undefendable, it places the onus in the wrong place, and is a matter of opinion only. It is not clear that funding an LHC or a supercomputer brain simulation is at all the best use of public funds or that it serves the research community, it may lead science down paths (the brain thing being a case at hand) that may be better pursued by a distribution of effort.

      1. There are multiple arguments going on here, and I think we should be careful not to confuse them.

        1) If you have a system in place, which you way or may not like, then cutting that system suddenly is going to have costs. You should make sure the costs will not outweigh the money you were trying to save. I don’t think that’s happening here.

        2) Perhaps the system is not the best system. That’s fine, but then you have to make a rational decision to change the system, and ensure that the system doesn’t break down during the change. If we had a different method for funding those areas of research whose payoffs are decades down the road, that would be fine with me; for instance, having industry organizations tax their members in order to fund foundations whose purpose is to support research whose long-term benefits aren’t yet clear. BUT — that has nothing to do with what’s happening in the sequester.

        3) There is no question the budget has to be cut. The math is clear; the current entitlement system is not supportable. And science budgets will overall have to go down a bit. But first, one should remember that we’ve already hurt science a lot in this country when the economy was good, during the 2000-2008 period. And second, cutting science deeply and broadly and suddenly is likely to make the budget worse, not better, because it hurts the process by which our capitalist system (like it or not) refuels itself. The science research done at universities eventually (not immediately) feeds into to new technologies and new products. We’re not going to have a very good economy 25 years from now if the old system, in which all of the top scientists and engineers in the world came to train in US universities and stayed to work in US companies to develop new technologies here, is replaced with a new system in which more and more top US scientists and engineers study abroad and stay there, or quit to become lawyers or finance experts… or, as in my case, bloggers, who write about science because there isn’t enough funding to allow people to actually do science.

        1. > The math is clear; the current entitlement system is not supportable

          Indeed. We are on the cusp of a demographic tipping point. Last year about 40% (~400B) of the deficit was due to entitlements running cash negative. That figure will double in the next ten or so years.

          Matt, when you blame the recession for your situation and blame the sequester today you are avoiding the root cause.

          By giving the President a pass for ignoring the issue you make it worse. By voting for him when he proposes then walks away from needed reform you tell him it is OK to cut science because he will still have your support.

          End the sequester and you only buy yourself a year or so. If you want science funding as I do, you need to address the root cause and not the temporary political expedient.

          You need to openly address and call out the source of spending growth that is choking science (and everything else for that matter).

          1. In my view the direct support of public welfare is the principle responsibility of an administration and while the public itself is incapable of providing for its welfare then this is the principal concern of an administration – all else can be put aside. Now, I’d prefer that we lived in a generous society where even this was not necessary – but that is a discussion for another place and another time.

        2. I do not disagree with points 1. and 2. But just as I would not expect an unemployed laborer or those in need of public healthcare to make comments on science funding policy I do not think it appropriate of scientists to make comments on a public administration’s fulfillment of social policy. Nor do I think that our political agendas should be showing here.

          1. Steven,
            Having paid into it for years I agree that the ‘entitlement’ language is misleading. However, after that we part ways…

            It is not the mandate of the US government “to ensure the health and well-being of the public.” Also you don’t seem very concerned as to its sustainability: “whether it’s sustainable or not – it is a matter of public policy.” I must tell you that I think it is foolish to ignore the warnings of SomeGuy and many others like him. Sustainability is critical, and math matters – so cuts must be made and it’s going to be painful, but if we don’t do it we face financial collapse. And we can’t escape this by printing more money and creating even more debt – as the last several Presidents and Congresses seem intent on doing – that may delay the day of reckoning but will only ensure that it will be worse when it does come. Also, it is just not right to finance the present situation on the backs of our children and our children’s children.

            You say: “Support of the public welfare is the principle concern of an administration – all else can be put aside.” I don’t think so. It is just as important that the basic urge to explore and understand the world around us be satisfied. Scientific exploration must be maintained for humanity to progress. Frankly, if it were not for science you would be talking about the health and well-being of the public from your cold, dark, disease infested cave.

            As to those of you who feel that industry and not government should finance basic research. I don’t think so. That will get you fracking, but you will never see fusion. You may get the Hilton in low Earth orbit but you will never explore the ocean of Europa. You may get wall-street transactions via trans-earth neutrino beam but you will never understand the true nature of the particles you are using. You would not have the LHC. You would not have the Planck satellite. In short you would have Egypt without the Pyramids!

  15. I have long advocated that Government is not the proper source of funding for basic scientific research or its direction. This dependence and the expectation that such research will only be supported by public funds builds an inertia into other sources of support.

  16. Hate to say this, but get used to it. As the unfunded liabilities in entitlement programs get worse and worse science funding will go down and down.

    Unless and until entitlements are addressed other spending MUST go down.

      1. Not sure what you mean by that especially since the system isn’t sustainable anyway.

        If Matt wants to promote greater science funding (something to which we all agree) he needs to push for entitlement reform.

        Without that, anything you do (raise taxes to cut waste, whatever) will be crowded out by the baby boomers retirement.

  17. The best thing that we can do is to recognize that like damage is being done in other areas as well. And many areas of long term damage and cost in $ and even human life can not be recovered. Perhaps our best action is to make clear that we will be voting for — and supporting candidates that show good sense and long term judgement.

  18. Maybe we should stop relying on state handouts (science spending isn’t a big vote winner) and try to attract more sources of voluntary funding. I’m sure there’s a billionaire out there with a big ego who would like his name attached to the next particle discovered.

    Expecting governments which have debt spiralling out of control and politicians who care mostly about their special interests to give a damn isn’t very realistic.

    1. I don’t know Mike, not sure if even the progress of scientific truth would be worth the price of having to constantly refer to the ‘Gates Boson’ or the ‘Buffetton’ or G-d forbid, the ‘Trumpon’…

  19. This “business” approach is not appropiate for science: it is very much like J. Craig Venter’s idea to finance the cost of the sequencing of the human genome by patenting individual genes and putting up the patents for auction.

    Venter had great scientific insights regarding how to accelerate the entire process of sequencing, but his idea to turn this endeavor into a business was not among the best of ideas from a purely scientific standpoint.

    Businesses already have a solution to finance basic research and R&D for business purposes: VC firms.

    In fact, there are some VC firms that specialize in this kind of investment, that is, to finance specific research of inventors.

    Kind regards, GEN

  20. I cannot believe that the Canadian government wrenched the NRC in that way. World-class, cutting edge science with tremendous possible future applications was being done there, at least in the field of quantum information (my field).

    Now our government wants to use our tax money to provide R&D to businesses that would do it by themselves anyway, to the cost of long-sighted science research. It is not even good for the businesses, mind you, since coordinating with the NRC for R&D will probably be less efficient than “organic” business R&D.

    In the end we have a less efficient free market and no one left to do the necessary research that industry wouldn’t do. We still have the universities, but even NSERC money is being converted into industrial partnerships now. Things look quite grim, if you ask me.

    1. What’s happening in Canada is colossal, spectacular stupidity. Canada, as a smaller but intellectually vibrant country with no hostile neighbors, should be investing in first-rate science; and the previous governments made great decisions and put the country on that path. Now all that effort is being undone, at a shot. I can’t believe the current government is run by such foolish people, with so little knowledge of history.

      Hopefully the efforts by some in the U.S. Congress to subject science in the U.S. to a similarly stupid set of criteria will be blocked by the Senate, or at worst by the White House. There are still some intelligent people in Washington, for the moment.

      1. That’s good to hear. The U.S. government has more checks and balances and that should slow down the process. A majority Canadian government can do pretty much whatever it wishes if the MPs are kept in line.

        Anyway, I appreciate your contribution to the public debate on the topic.

        Cheers, B.D.

  21. Well let’s all remember that the sequester was approved by republicans and democrats alike (including the President), with the logic that its consequences would be so heinous to both sides that it would force both sides to compromise and make tough but sane budget cuts before mindless across the board cuts actually kicked in. The republicans figured that the democrats would never allow cuts to their many social programs and the democrats figured the republicans would never allow cuts to the military. However, the U.S. government is so dysfunctional (except when it comes to giving themselves pay raises and other perks) that even the threat of sequester failed to bring both sides together. Towards the end both sides played a game of chicken and both sides underestimated the idiotic resolve of the other. Both sides thought the American people would blame the other. Both were wrong. The American people rightly blame both.

    Science, which, believe it or not, majorities on both sides support, got caught in the political crossfire. It is a sad situation…

    However, sequester or no, the intensity of science support in America has definitely waned over the years. While America will remain a strong contributor to science for years to come, it is hard not to feel that the lead has shifted to Europe. I personally have been waiting years for certain experiments to be performed – all of them will be conducted in Europe.

  22. Politics in the US have always affected the normal development of science, sometimes it was a positive effect to some sides of science, like the investment on the development of nuclear weapons had a positive effect on the understanding of the nucleus, nucleons, and the development of a theory on how heavier atoms are created within stars, how the gravitational pressure ignites the nuclear reactions within stars: in a way, the understanding of this process was a consequence of the Ulam Teller design.

    Now, it has come a time when that intervention has produced negative effects.

    Regarding the ECG image, I was referring to individual projects being affected in such fashion, and not science as a whole.

  23. Indeed, all sides of science in the US are affected by this issue, and it really is bad for the continuity of the US as the country that it is today.

    Some of the negative effects of this measure will start to be evident in the long term, but many will be very evident in the short term, and all the negative effects will produce negative lasting consequences that will be very difficult to counter or mitigate.

    The damage already done is immense: projects being closed, research being abruptly stopped, scientists migrating to other countries, teams being disbanded, scientists changing career paths, or even careers.

    It is impossible not to think of the image of an ECG suddenly dropping to no signal, the very sign of death.

    It is possible to analyze the nature of the consequences with math: the sudden cut of funding is a Heaviside (step) function: that is exactly what we see in the ECG dropping to zero, an inverted heaviside step.

    The rate of change, the derivative, of a Heaviside function, is a spike, a pulse, somewhat like like a Dirac delta functional.

    Many of the consequences will behave like this spike, this pulse: not a good sign, indeed.

    1. Even though I do think this is a big deal, I do think it’s important not to overstate the situation. I would not say that it’s an ECG dropping to nothing; that’s an over-statement. It isn’t a wholesale shutdown.

      Nevertheless, the costs of across-the-board cuts of this size are large, and people need to know they’re taking place. We are going to lose many projects, many scientists, and a lot of expertise. And people also need to remember how badly science was treated under the Bush administration, before the recession — this isn’t the first cut.

  24. Who is : same circus, clowns, international community, goverment, barbarians, they ? Are you talking about me or you ? Typical science !

    1. (Goverment?)

      I admit “they” is a rhetorical flourish. “They” is not well-defined; I considered not using it, but titles have to be kept short. I do not use this wording in the article; I try to stick with the facts.

      Regarding the ensuing comments — they’re comments. Do you yourself have any further comments on the article?

      And what do you mean by “typical science”? This article, and the comments that responded to it, are not “Science”. If what you mean is “typical scientists”, then perhaps it is typical, perhaps it is not; but distinguishing between science (which is a collective process by which fallible people produce knowledge that is far less fallible than the individuals involved) and scientists (who are people with political views and emotions and frustrations and quirks just like everyone else) is pretty darn important if there’s to be a useful discussion here.

    1. Well, cancelling the collider was a stupid, politically-motivated decision, one that concerned a controversial expensive project affecting a few fields of science. That was bad; it cost the US its preeminence in a major scientific field.

      What’s happening now is much worse. All of science is affected. It’s the entire research operation that’s at risk, and possibly the long-term future of the country.

  25. The US governement should be fired immediately for this long term damage they are doing, their job is NOT to destroy science in their country … !!!

    I have no idea what could be done about it, since the actual governement obviosly gives a damn about science and in particular about fundamental and particle physics. I suspect nothing scientists could think about doing to protest for example, or to explain what they are doing is the most stupid thing they can do as Prof. Strassler nicely explains in this article, would help anything :-/. Maybe it would make these barbarians even happy if all scientists would leave the country …

    Maybe the international community of scientists should weigh in and try to find a way to help, together with people who have some financial power and love science?

  26. It is ridiculous and counterproductive to tie research funding to possible commercialization of byproducts or deliverables of said research.

    Once to start travelling that path, what will come next? to condition funding to how fast that possible commercialization could be achieved?

    Just to have an example of how ridiculous and counterproductive it is: Einstein was able to devise a theory of spontaneous and stimulated emission of photons (that was the scientific basis for lasers and masers) in the early 1920s, but it took another 40 years to design an experiment to put that theory to the test, and then, a few more years to make that knowledge practical enough for industrial and commercial use.

    Again, it is ridiculous, but that should not surprise us: should we expect any different from politicians?

    Kind regards, GEN

  27. Maybe the US cuts will give the EU a research advantage if they lose ground. My contact at JPL NASA ( Caltech ) is not short of funds to progress his work on the Mars project.

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