Thursday, April 4, 2013

US No Longer #1 In Science Since The Year 2000

Let's see, what else happened in that year? A religious nut-job from Texas won stole the presidency, instituted a surely unconstitutional Office of Faith-Based Programs (aside: at first I misunderstood, thinking Bush had appointed Tammy Faye Bakker to a new Office of Face-Paste Programs), and de-emphasized science to the point that serious young science students began thinking of careers elsewhere in the world. Note this is the judgment of the students, not of a commercial publication trying to sell newspapers or magazines, who often saturate their top 10 lists of colleges in the physical sciences with American universities. And it is the judgment of talented American students, who must at least consider moving elsewhere, and non-American students, who are less likely to come here for their education than they were a couple of decades ago.

How much of this is GeeDubya Bush's fault? It's hard to tell. As far as I can see, a GOP tradition of dismissing higher education in science began approximately in Ronald Reagan's presidency, and has worsened in every Republican administration since then. In many fields, the best students know not to come here. And America was once so secure in that #1 spot! It seems a crying shame to have let it slip away.

Large Hadron Collider, CERN, Tunnel Interior, Switzerland and France
But slip away it has. Prof. Matt Strassler, a theoretical physicist on the Rutgers faculty, is currently happy to be on loan to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). currently the world's most powerful particle accelerator, built... sorry, Americans; not in America... built by CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, headquartered in Geneva), in a tunnel spanning parts of Switzerland and France. A comparable American project, the Superconducting Super Collider, was envisioned and debated, but fell victim to political greed when it lost the support of every Senator whose state was not its proposed location. Strassler, who blogs at "Of Particular Significance" (it's on the blogroll), has this to say, pointing to the words of Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of the major journal Science as a basis for Strassler's own thoughts:
A mere twenty years ago, this nation was clearly the best place in the world to do scientific research. Since 2000 the decline has been precipitous, and though the U.S. still surely ranks in the top ten, few would say it clearly is the best anymore. In general, the country remains a relatively great place to live and work. But any excellent young scientist from abroad has to think carefully about coming to or staying in the U.S. for a career, because there might not be enough money to support even first-rate research. Similarly, any young U.S. scientist, no matter how devoted to this country and no matter how skilled, may face the tough choice of either going abroad or abandoning his or her career. (It’s not just young people either, as I can personally attest.)

Whereas before the year 2000 it was easy for U.S. universities to attract the best in the world to teach and do research at their institutions, and to train the next generation of American scientists, the brain drain since that time has been awful. (I see this up close, as more and more often I fail to hire talented individuals specifically because they see a better scientific and personal future outside the United States.) And it is getting worse. All of this affects our economy’s future, our society’s health, and even our ability to defend ourselves, especially since some of the most active spending on science is being done by countries that are hostile or potentially hostile to the free world.

It’s easy to blame this on the recession. “Oh, these are bad times and we all have to share the pain.” That’s true, but this problem started long before 2008. The system became threadbare during the Bush administration, and now, in the ensuing recession and political chaos, it’s at risk of falling apart.

So there you have it, from a respected theoretical physicist, one who himself had to move to Switzerland to pursue his high-powered career (pun intended): America once had it, but America lost it, its system of scientific research collapsing in a heap during the Bush administration. One man's opinion, you say? I'm afraid a lot of other physicists concur. America has plenty to spend maintaining a war machine well-suited to fighting the nuclear war we never had (thank goodness), but we can't afford to support first-rate scientific research. This scarcity of research funds (for any research not of military consequence) has unfortunate implications: most American scientists, even eminent figures in their fields, inevitably spend large portions of their workdays not on science but on spinning the research they wish to do, to Congress of course, but also to the public; to hear them tell their story, every forthcoming breakthrough is new, radical, of overarching significance, etc.

It's a helluva way to run a nation's science programs.

1 comment:

  1. Over at EmptyWheel I found out that the Department of Homeland Security is preventing U.S. flu research that could develop a cure for the H7N9 virus in case the outbreak in China goes out of control and spreads to the human population. Think about that, and you'll understand why leading-edge science research isn't done in America today. Homeland Security simply won't allow it, because knowledge is dangerous, y'know...

    - Badtux the "Ignorance is Strength" Penguin



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