Putting the "fund" in fundamental science research

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Thursday, 09 July 2009

(20:27:04 CDT)

Putting the "fund" in fundamental science research

Michael Crichton's book, State of Fear, ends with a comparison between the studies into Global Warming and the studies into eugenics. Yes, much like Ben Stein in Expelled, Crichton Godwinned to make a point about the "real nature of science". Except that Crichton was defending science as being, I take it, above society and by being brought down into the mire of policy makers and social trends, it was being supplanted by some more evil, darker cousin. Dr. John Christy, who at least used to be a professor and researcher at UAH when I was an undergrad (not real sure about now, but I think so) also warns about the dangers of the social trends behind Global Warming and does so with a more reasoned, whether or not you agree with it, argument than Crichton puts forth. Maybe beside the point, because in this country, I'm not sure if the trends are "positive" towards Global Warming, however. I have met more (I am in the Southeast, mind you) people who feel that we should ignore Global Warming than those who think we should pay close attention to it.

That's the rub, though, right? Can you study Global Warming with an open mind? How about evolution? How about the age of the universe? How about the nature of things like pollution and the impact on cancer? How about things like the breeding habits of dogs? How about the impact on abstinence education in schools? How about the iron content in rocks found in various latitudes? Some of these things seem non-controversible. Is that a word? I mean, some of these seem beyond the ability to make controversy over. Some of these things are controversy itself. Look at stem cell research. Look at schools in Georgia suing for the right to include a disclaimer about evolution. Science answers all sorts of questions, but some of those answers do not jive with our world view.

What about the nature of science funding itself? One of my favorite songs in the whole wide world is Gil Scott-Heron's inflammatory "Whitey on the Moon". "A rat bit my sister Nell last week, and Whitey's on the Moon." At what point does scientific research stop being "for the good of man" and start being for the bad? When does it negatively impact society by costing too much? I am not saying this with an answer in mind, I do not think there is even a pat answer that would clarify for all time, but I do find it interesting to think about. Is there a value you can put to science? We are inundated with stories about a million dollars spent to count the spots on woodpeckers and thousands of dollars spent on studying the social patterns of Chinese prostitutes. Where is the line? How do we come up with proper policies? How do we limit on type of research without potentially harming valuable research that might end up saving society? Again, I do not know, but I bet it involves a bit of natural slick and a little bit of spit. Don't forget sweat. And chance. Never forget the role chance plays in this whole sordid thing.

That was just a bit of ramble to get you thinking. I would love to hear your feedback, but now I am going to point you to David Goldston's article in the July 2, 2009 issue of Nature. I can't link to it here, but if you have a subscription or work with an institution that does, then get a copy and read it. It is interesting and thought provoking. He talks about how certain politicians cried "politics" over Obama's insistence that we study cancer and autism. He goes into details about why they cried politics and why it might be silly, and concludes with the statement: "Obama's cancer and autism proposals may or may not be a good idea. But that's for politicians to decide; there is no higher authority." How scary is that? Did you feel a shiver go down your spine? Read it again. Tell it at campfires. Shout it at trick-or-treaters. I bet it will be the hit of the Boneyard Ball. But, BUT, what is the other answer? A non-political comittee appointed somehow to act outside of the budget constraints of congress? An international body of scientists elected by scientists to run the whole shebang? Just sit back and allow college campuses to handle it? NPOs? Amateur scientists who get grant money through a lottery? As scary as Goldston's statement might strike us all, what other choice do we have? What's more, is trading one political field (American Federal) for another (academia) worth anything? Is it possible, and not just fiction, to hope for a world where someone funds science without expecting a certain return?

If you want to be a scientist in today's clime, you have something like four options: (1) Government work (and it's likely military connections), (2) Academia (and their intense political climate as well as up and down budget worries), (3) Industry/Commercial (and their bias towards profit), or (4) Non-profit organization (and all that entails). Every one of them is worried to some degree over funding, self-monitoring, non-scientific output (prestige for the University to attract liberal arts majors, weapons for the military, whichever cause the NPO is tied up against), and have their own inner politics that may or may not be tied to several layers of outside influence. Take a moment, and thank whatever deity or Spinozan unity you want that any science whatsoever gets accomplished. Or, if you are a tried-and-true luddite, curse the Devil.

Sure, there are downsides. Berlin had one of, if not the, greatest groups of physicists assembled prior to World War II. As Hitler rose to power, numerous luminaries were force to flee or were captured and destroyed, because a fair number were Jewish or had Jewish ties. When asked about the practical side of guttting a nation's scientific glory for a political plan (how sweet that makes genocide relatively sound), he said something along the lines of "We are better off without Jewish science". Der ewige Jude, that awesome little propaganda film that used such convincing logical tactics as showing rats and Jews in nearly the same frame (as I have said, the only people who believe most propaganda or those who believe whatever the propaganda was selling anyhow), snarked about Einstein being the Relativity Jew. Der Relativitätsjude Einstein, der seinen Deutschenhass hinter seiner obskuren Pseudowissenschaft versteckte. Pseudowissenschaft. Pseudo-science. Fake science. Because the science was wrong? No. Because he was a Jew.

If that example seems quaint and almost funny because it is so old, think about Thabo Mbeki, ex-president of South Africa, who refused life saving AIDS treatments for his country because he personally believed that AIDS was caused, essentially, by the evils of white people and not because of HIV (New Scientist article on AIDS deniers). What about the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the claims that political pandering had distorted research? What do we call research that tax payer money is spent on, but is then changed to say whatever the politicians want? That's right...A. WASTE. OF. TAX. PAYER'S. MONEY. (CommonDreams.org article about the corruption in the FWS and the fact that Obama still appointed one individual to be chief). Jesus, why pay "authorities" to say things? Why not just stand up there and say you don't like some scientific truth? The Bush administration spent so much time and effort to prove that abstinence was correct when no amount of study is going to prove that. Not that they were looking to prove that, anyhow. What they were doing was saying they were right, and were just waiting for the universe to agree.

Bad, as these last few examples show, or good, as pretty much no examples I have posted show, this is what we are stuck with. What's the point? What's the meaning? What should we do? For one, we need to teach scientists when they are students the importance of funding. When I was doing physics and philosophy, it surely wasn't the physics faculty teaching me about funding and political pandering just to get paid for important research. Two, transparency cannot hurt. Not transparency like the July 9th, 2009 Nature is talking about when it discusses the danger of blogging results from conferences. No, transparency of the sort that makes any paper published list the sponsors of research. Time Magazine cannot review a Time-Warner movie without admitting they are part of the same economic empire, but Global Warming research gets handed to us as though from the hands of angels. We have to dig deep to find the background. Third, all research needs to be published more, especially the failures. We focus too much on the successes and we overlook, are actually taught to overlook, the failures and how important they are to the process. How we jive this with the real world's need for secrecy, I don't know, smarter people can figure that out. Four, we need a logic class taught in high school that teaches us what 94% agreement means, how that's not "undecided", and about the nature of bias and what to do with it if anything. Five, we need to paint an honest view of science as it is, with its politics an its failures and its insider "trading" and its elitism and all that. Six, and finally (for now), we have to accept that everything is this world is limited (time, money, materials) and that we can only do so much. And, sadly, whatever we decide is going to have some negative connotation. Welcome to the world, right?

Science is an awesome force, one of the most awesome forces in the whole of human history, but treating it as some unlimited geyser of holy script only dilutes the every day reality of a scientist terrified to admit that his years-long research is for naught or that some psychological research is going to get canned simply because of a matter of infidelity. What's more, jumping like a poorly trained grinder monkey and cawing at every single misstep is a slap on the face of every science who churns through 14-hour days and shaky nerves just to find some cure, knowing that nine times out of ten, they will get jack squat compared to a pathetically few that will be revered as heroes. In this country, we have multiple days celebrating military heroes and conquests. I cannot think of one that praises the hundreds and thousands of scientists that actual make things like those victories possible, risk their lives working with deadly diseases and chemicals to find cures and ways to prevent disaster, or suffer personal sacrifice and ruin to teach a new generation to give just a slight more than a damn about the hard work that learning about this universe entails. Maybe that's my seven, we need a holiday dedicated to the heroes of science and it needs to be equal to our other days.

Can we do this? I doubt it. I think we kind of need to think of scientists as the angels and demons we make them out to be. Less than and more than human at the same time, and never really part of society. Something that we watch in movies, and call eggheads, and mostly don't think about. Most large scale memes come from some social need. Maybe it's fear to admit we do not understand what they are doing. Maybe it's anger that they cost so much while doing it. Maybe it is simple fear that one day our robot overlords will wipe the slate clean, and the bonds of the automatons will crumble like our bones. Whichever it is, I for one welcome my killeroid overlords.

Seriously, though, let's get a National Day of Science and celebrate some astronauts and cryptographers and the like.

Si Vales, Valeo


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