Sunday, September 07, 2008

Editorial of Science: No More Years

My work on the evolution of aging got started on the basis that the National Institute on Aging is better funded than almost any other non-military research branch of the government. Older people vote, politicians and administrators tend to be older, and our population is getting older, so we offer funding to researchers who will work on issues relating to aging. I happen to also find the topic fascinating, and think it raises wonderful evolutionary questions, but I would not have ended up pursuing it if there was no funding available. America cares about aging, so I study it.

In many ways, this is how it should be. If you hire a doctor or a lawyer, you are likely to have some specific benefits you are willing to individually pay for. Remove the cancer, fight the charges. When society hires an academic researcher, individual level benefits are likely to be few or far off, but society expects societal returns. Those who funded early research into the nature of electricity did not anticipate the particular technologies we enjoy based on that work, but they correctly predicted it would somehow be very useful to society.

Few objective observers could deny that for much of the twentieth century, American science and technology greatly outpaced most other developed countries, and much of our economic, military and diplomatic power was derived, at least in part, from this technical prowess. America was one of the best places to do science, and this drew many of the finest scientists from around the world to move their activities, and their intellectual contributions, to America. Einstein is one obvious example. The term "brain drain" was invented in part to describe the mass movement of scientists and academics from other countries to the US. The US government not only invested heavily in science, it valued science, honored scientists and encouraged its citizens to see scientific progress as vital to our national future.

How things have changed. Several of the most promising young American scientists I know have moved to other countries, because the US is no longer competitive in funding or respecting science. Why study evolution in the US when New Zealand will pay you more and take your work more seriously? Why work on alternative energy technology when Canada or Germany will give you many times the research funding and implement your advances more quickly? Scientists follow the priorities of their society, or they move to another society.

Those who read the American press often hear about how America needs more scientists. But when I ask promising science majors why they are going into medicine or industrial engineering instead of science, they inevitably mention uncertainty about whether it is possible to make a decent living in science. Four years of college, two years of a masters degree and five years of doctoral study to qualify for a post-doctoral assistantship making $35K a year? No one smart enough to be a scientist thinks that's a financially desirable option. We can't have more scientists until we have more, and better paying, and better funded, and better respected, positions in science.

This national problem has gotten particularly bad over the past eight years. The right wing of the Republican Party takes a particularly low view of science. This is partly because they espouse a particularly anti-intellectual form of populism. In this view, normal people should only respect other normal people, and anyone who is too smart or too educated is not normal, but rather elite. The highly educated (who conveniently are overwhelmingly Democratic according to most polls) don't understand you and are keeping you down.
But the rightwing also dislikes science because science keeps producing answers that are contrary to the dictates of the far right. The far right knows that evolution does not occur, global warming is a naturally occurring hoax and trees are the primary cause of air pollution. The far right knows that Abstinence Only Sexual Education reduces pre-marital sex and teen pregnancy. The far right knows that homosexuality has no biological basis, that cities with more guns have fewer shootings, that we can drill our way to lower oil prices and that prayer is the most effective medicine. The far right knows that the lower our tax rates the higher our tax income. Science has the gall, the sheer pointy-headed elitist snobbery, to fail to support even one of these views, and to provide data directly contradicting most of them. The far right responds by treating science, and scientists, as somewhere between irrelevant and the enemy. Worse, under the Bush administration, there has been the consistent effort to bend, break or fabricate the conclusions of science to support every politically expedient fantasy. Research funding has been cut, science belittled and distorted and scientific reports edited, suppressed and distorted like never before.

This brings me to the current Republican ticket. John McCain has staked much of his campaign on the promise that drilling for oil in the US can bring down consumer fuel prices in the near future, a proposition one needs only simple arithmetic to disprove. Governor Palin is among the most anti-intellectual figures in her party, which is why the religious right so adores her. She strongly holds all of the fantasy-based, anti-intellectual views of the theocratic base. She has sworn to fight those who want evolution taught, those who want to do something about global warming, those who support sex-education policies that actually accomplish something and so on. Under a McCain-Palin administration, we can expect not only a continuation, but a strengthening of the Bush anti-science agenda. Should this happen the US faces a new brain drain, but in reverse. If science is not funded and not respected in the US, scientists in the US will have little choice but to give up science, or take their skills and knowledge elsewhere.
More immediately, and more importantly, we as a nation cannot afford to have another administration that so thoroughly rejects the foundational assumption of science: the best way to understand the world is by carefully observing it. The Bush-Cheney administration has consistently refused to allow observations of the world to influence their understanding of the world, or their strategies within it. Every sign points to a similar immunity to reality in any McCain-Palin administration. We can afford no more years of that.

1 comment:

jte said...

What he said!