Tag Archives: ScienceAndSociety

Not As Painless As They’d Have You Believe

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.

Why Government Investment in Scientific Research Is Worthwhile

[NOTE ADDED: Unfortunately, within two months of this post, Mr. Zakaria was suspended from his job for plagiarism.  Such a spectacular lack of integrity calls into question everything he has ever written, and so I cannot anymore recommend his article, nor will he ever be quoted on this website again.]


Today I’d like to call your attention to an article by Fareed Zakaria, entitled “How government funding of science rewards U.S. taxpayers.”  (The sentiment also applies to taxpayers elsewhere, of course.) I can’t vouch for the details inside the article, but the point that Zakaria makes is one that I personally feel is very important.

When I give public talks about the fundamental research that I or my colleagues are doing, I am often asked, “what are its benefits to society?”  It’s a completely fair question, but with fundamental research it is typically far too early to know the answer; it can be many decades before the benefits, if any, become evident.  I think the best answer requires a long view — the kind of view Zakaria lays out in the article.  I often reply this way: that you should think about government investment in fundamental scientific research as similar to venture capital investments in many small startup companies; most of these efforts will fail, or will succeed with a small payout, but one or two will pay off in spectacular fashion and change the world.

And you surely want that payout to happen in a friendly country.  Zakaria  points out the worrying slope that the United States is on; though scientific breakthroughs have a big impact on the economy over the long term, funding for science is on a long-term decline (as a fraction of GDP) in the United States, while it is sharply increasing in a list of countries that include some that are not friendly to the United States.

Zakaria focuses on what is happening today in biotechnology, genetics, genomics, etc.  He also mentions the historical case of the transistor, the device that lies at the heart of our computer-based society. This last is an even nicer example if you expand your view.   The research that was done in the late years of the 19th century on the emission of light by atoms and on the electron led eventually to the equations of quantum mechanics, which in turn were essential in the development of the transistor.  No 19th century scientist could have predicted that the discovery of the electron would help put a cell phone in your pocket.

[Thanks are due to Leonid Kruglyak for bringing this article to my attention.]