Earmarks and the Ridicule of Science

There’s an interesting exchange over at the Reality-Based Community around the topic of “earmarks” for science, like the grizzly bear DNA study McCain keeps mocking. Michael O’Hare argues that science should not be funded by earmarks:

Almost any piece of scientific research, especially in biology, that isn’t called “Cure cancer!” is liable to the kind of ignorant ridicule lobbed at these. Sure, some research is deeply silly and some is not worth doing. But that non-specialists can make fun of something from its title means nothing, and these japes indicate only the smug ignorance of the speaker. There is a problem with these earmarks, and a real one, but it’s not that they are silly research, it’s that scientific research should be selected for funding by political judgments about large program areas and peer/expert selection of individual grants. The grounds for dissing these is that Congress is no good at allocating science money at the individual project level, and shouldn’t do so even if the projects in question are really stellar: if they are, they should make it through NSF review.

His co-blogger Mark Kleiman counters that earmarks can be good policy without being scientifically interesting:

For example, a study of the range of genetic variation in some species occupying some range might be of no scientific interest whatever, but be vital in deciding how much habitat protection that species needed to avoid extinction. The decision about which of those studies to undertake is properly economic and political, rather than purely scientific. I’m with Mike in thinking that bureaucrats rather than elected officials are usually the right decision-makers about such matters, but “Measure the DNA of these bears so we know whether we can safely log here” is just as reasonable a request for a Congressman to make as “Build levees to protect this town.”

Mark’s probably a bit off in his example, by virtue of not being a scientist, but his general point is correct. There’s a lot of work done by scientists that isn’t necessarily ground-breaking enough for NSF or NIH to be interested, but it is valuable enough to deserve funding.

Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of why science earmarks get singled out for ridicule by people like McCain and the infamous Senator Proxmire and others of their ilk. After all, the same arguments can be made about all sorts of “earmarks.” There are very few “earmarks” that can’t be made to sound silly, if you have a mind to, and at the same time, there are very few that are actually completely without merit.

Science gets singled out for the same reasons I discussed in my Science21 talk (video, microblogging, slides): politicians know they can safely mock science funding, because public understanding of science is terrible, and they know they’re unlikely to be called on it. Explaining why a study of bear DNA isn’t ridiculous takes long enough that the average uninformed voter will tune out long before the key point is reached.

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Fear the (Quantum) Turtle

The Pontiff beat me to it, but my Ph.D. alma mater has scored a $12.5 million grant from the NSF to fund the Joint Quantum Institute as a Physics Frontier Center for the development of quantum technology:

The Physics Frontier Center (PFC) award, effective September 1, will fund 17 graduate students, seven postdoctoral scientists and seven undergraduates as well as an extensive and highly cross-disciplinary research program under the general title Processing Quantum Coherence. Ultimately the work may lead to development of a computer that exploits the strange phenomena of quantum mechanics to do certain tasks, such as huge database searches and unbreakable data encryption, exponentially faster than even the best conventional computers.

This is great news, not just because it involves a lot of people I used to work with. OK, it’s mostly because it involves a lot of people I used to work with, but they happen to be outstanding scientists doing amazing work at NIST and at UMD, and it’s great to see them recognized. And the stuff they’re doing is every bit as cool as anything happening at CERN, and cheaper, too.

Science21: Supply and Demand, Booms and Busts

There’s an article in yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed about the supply of scientists and engineers, arguing that there is not, in fact, a shortage:

Michael S. Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, looked at what he called five “mysteries” of the STEM work force issue. For example, why do employers claim a shortage of qualified STEM graduates while prospects for Ph.D.s remain “poor”? Why do retention and completion rates for STEM fields remain low compared with students’ aspirations? Why is there a “serious” funding crisis at the National Institutes of Health after its budget doubled from 1998 to 2003?

Looking at whether there is a shortage of qualified STEM workers, Teitelbaum argued that such claims reappear roughly every 10 years. In the late 1980s, he said, speculations of looming shortfalls were “wildly wrong,” while successful lobbying in the late 1990s to triple the number of H-1B visas to fulfill a supposed shortage coincided with the IT bust — and a resulting collapse in demand for workers — in 2001.

I suspect that a lot of these questions arise from terminological issues, but the article is a little vague, and doesn’t provide a link to an original source with more detail. Janet discussed this a little yesterday, but I’m not sure how much can be said about it without more information than is provided in the story.

This does, however, provide an excellent hook for talking about another of the excellent talks at the Science in the 21st Century meeting, by David Kaiser of MIT on historical booms and busts in physics after WWII (video, microblogging). The problem described in the article would undoubtedly sound familiar to Kaiser.

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Dinner With ΔKE

As mentioned previously, I was invited to discuss physics and politics at one of the local fraternities earlier this week. Oddly, given the primacy of Greek organizations on campus, this is only the fourth time I’ve set foot inside a fraternity or sorority house in seven years. The previous occasions were times when I was doing housing inspections for the committee that handles those matters.

They’ve cleaned up the house since the other time I was there– they used to be Φ Γ Δ, years ago, and then there was a brief interregnum when they were officially “Alpha Beta” (referred to as “oh, those assholes” by some of the current brothers), and then a few years ago, they became Delta Kappa Epsilon, or, as I always think when I see those letters, Change in Kinetic Energy.

Dinner was Italian food from one of the better local restaurants (Schenectady has an abundance of Italian places), and I had requested good beer, which was provided in the form of a couple of sampler packs from Harpoon and Southern Tier (who make a pretty decent porter). We spent a while socializing and eating, and then I got up and talked for a bit.

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Notes for a Discussion of Physics and Politics

The local fraternities and sororities hold occasional dinners/ discussions with faculty, to demonstrate that they’re engaged with the intellectual life of the college. One of my students invited me to dinner at the Change in Kinetic Energy fraternity tomorrow night, and I agreed to do a discussion of physics and politics.

That’s a vague topic, because I didn’t have anything really definite in mind for it, other than that it seems better suited to a dinner and discussion than any of my regular presentations, which tend to be PowerPoint lectures. That doesn’t really seem appropriate, so I figured I’d go with a topic that might involve a little more back and forth.

Of course, I’m not willing to make the whole thing up on the fly, so I need to give it a little thought. And I’ve got this blog, and all these smart readers who can make useful suggestions about things I ought to mention…. So, below the fold are some scattered thoughts about what I might say to spark some discussion.

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Dorky Poll: Three Beeeeellion Dollars

Regular commenter Johan Larson writes with a suggested blog topic:

The Human Genome Project (yes, you have to pronounce those capitals) cost about $3 billion. If $3 billion were yours to spend on scientific research, how would you spend the money?

That’s a great question, and a great topic for a Dorky Poll. I’ll narrow my response a little, because if I had to choose from all areas of science, it’s a no-brainer to throw all the money at public health– eradication of malaria, cures for major diseases, etc. For the sake of variety, let’s restrict it to your own particular subfield, so, for example, how would I spend three billion dollars on physics?

Well, I wouldn’t spend it on particle accelerators.

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The Easterbrook Idiocy Supercollider

I generally like Gregg Easterbrook’s writing about football (though he’s kind of gone off the deep end regarding the Patriots this year), but everything else he turns his hand to is a disaster. In particular, he tends to pad his columns out with references to science and technology issues. I’m not quite sure what the point of these is supposed to be, other than to demonstrate that he, Gregg Easterbrook, is so much smarter than the average football fan that he knows, like, rocket science and stuff. The problem with that is that his knowledge of rocket science seems to owe more to Star Trek than any actual science education, because the science interludes in his ESPN columns range from the seriously mistaken to the jaw-droppingly stupid.

His most recent effort is just a masterpiece of dumb, though. This is a desperately stupid bit of work, even by the standards of desperately stupid science interludes in Gregg Easterbrook columns. He packs more dumb into these nine paragraphs than I would’ve thought possible in a major media outlet. This isn’t your ordinary, everyday stupid, it’s Discovery Institute stupid.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Scientists Discover That If You Slam Members of Congress Together Under Pressure, Money Is Released: High-energy particle accelerators cost taxpayers large sums but stand little chance of discovering anything of practical value. Promoted as quests for understanding of the universe, particle accelerators serve mostly as job programs for physicists, postdocs, and politically connected laboratories and contractors. Yes, abstract experiments of bygone days produced great discoveries, and yes, the quest for abstract knowledge is inherent to human nature. But most experiments from the bygone golden age of physics were done at private expense, not using tax subsidies. Albert Michelson and Edward Morley did not demand that Ohio taxpayers provide them with a decade of luxury while they refined their ideas.

I’ll pause here for a moment to let Gordon Watts recover from the suggestion that he’s living in luxury at taxpayer expense.

So, yeah, science used to be the province of independetly wealthy members of the aristocracy, who could fund their research out of their private fortunes. That was a huge boon to the tax-paying public, no doubt about it. I’m not sure how that Wikipedia link supports his idea, but let’s just pretend that it does.

But while we’re looking back to the low-tax golden age of yesteryear, why stop with gentleman scientists of the late 1800’s? If you go back a bit farther, you find a time when members of the military were expected to supply their own weapons and uniforms. I mean, just think of the tax savings if we switched over to privately funded jet fighters and battle tanks!

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Fundamental Research Funding

Michael Nielsen, who’s so smart it’s like he’s posting from tomorrow, offers a couple of provocative questions about the perception of a crisis in funding for basic science:

First, how much funding is enough for fundamental research? What criterion should be used to decide how much money is the right amount to spend on fundamental research?

Second, the human race spent a lot lot more on fundamental research in the second half of the twentieth century than it did in the first. It’s hard to get a good handle on exactly how much, in part because it depends on what you mean by fundamental research. At a guess, I’d say at least 1000 times as much was spent in the second half of the twentieth century. Did we learn 1000 times as much? In fact, did we learn as much, even without a multiplier?

Well, at least there’s nothing controversial there…

These are excellent questions, but they’re also uncomfortable questions. They’re not unaskable, but it’s almost unsportsmanlike to ask them directly of most scientists. They’re questions that really need to be confronted, though, and a think a good deal of the image problems that science in general has at the moment can be traced to a failure to grapple more directly with issues of funding and the justification of funding.

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International Hypothetical Collider

The big story in high-energy physics this week is the release of a report on the projected cost of the International (very nearly) Linear Collider (ILC), which comes out to $6.7 billion-with-a-b (not including labor). There’s a story in the Times this morning, and an expert view on Cosmic Variance, and… well, if you read physics blogs, you’ve seen it mentioned. They’d revoke my blogging license if I failed to say anything about it.

Maybe I’m just cranky at the end of a long week, but I have a hard time getting all that excited about this. For one thing, it’s not my area of physics. More importantly, though, it’s still a hugely speculative endeavor, contingent on a lot of other factors.

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Blame Where Blame Is Due

A lot of people have commented on this New York Times article on science budgets, mostly echoing the author’s lament about the negative effects of operating at 2006 funding levels. I really don’t have much to add to that, but it’s worth reminding people where the blame for this belongs:

Last year, Congress passed just 2 of 11 spending bills — for the military and domestic security — and froze all other federal spending at 2006 levels. Factoring in inflation, the budgets translate into reductions of about 3 percent to 4 percent for most fields of science and engineering.

Congressional Democrats said last month that they would not try to finish multiple spending bills left hanging by the departed Republican majority and would instead keep most government agencies operating under their current budgets until next fall. Except for the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, the government is being financed under a stopgap resolution. It expires Feb. 15, and Democrats said they planned to extend a similar resolution through Sept. 30.

(emphasis added). Let’s be perfectly clear on this: there is a science funding crunch because the outgoing Republican majority made a deliberate decision not to pass budget bills, basically in a fit of pique. This is the legislative equivalent of a foot-stamping tantrum, a deeply childish attempt to make life difficult for the Democrats. If anyone in the Republican party retains the ability to feel shame, this would be the appropriate moment.