Monday, April 25, 2005

Science in the House.


I spent some time at the website for the
House Committee on Science. I was amazed by the amount of activity going on. I can't claim that I agree with all of the recommendations made by the committee (for example, their recommendation to decommission the Hubble Space Telescope was completely wrong). I was impressed by their willingness to listen to teachers to determine ways to improve math and science education in the United States.

I took issue with the allocation of scientific funding to basic sciences. From the Views and Estimates of the Committee on Science for FY 2006, page 3:

"The President proposes to spend 132.3 billion on R&D, about a 1 percent increase over FY 2005. The proposed R&D budget increases are heavily weighted toward development (a 2 percent increase), while applied research would remain flat, and basic science research would decline by 1.2 percent."

It is troubling that funding for basic science research would decline. Most innovative developments come in the pursuit of basic scientific discoveries. Consider this -- James Clerk Maxwell, who conducted basic science research (albeit as a theoretician) came up with the Maxwell Equations, which have contributed to nearly all of the technological innovations around us. I am often troubled by the lack of attention and funding given to basic science research.

In any case, as a scientist or a taxpayer wondering how your money is allocated, I strongly urge you to take a look at their website. I pose the following questions: As taxpayers, how would you like to see your money spent on science? Do you value basic science research? If not, why? If you're reading this post from another country, how is research funding regulated within your government?

16 Comments:

Blogger Raine said...

Well, I think these lawmakers have taken the right approach by focusing on college-level education in the math and sciences. Bill Gates has also recently pledged nearly a billion dollars towards funding high schools in educational reform projects to increase proficiency in math-science-technology.

6:11 PM  
Blogger thc said...

I would be curious to know how much scientific research is done with private funding.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Danilo da Silva said...

In Brazil, from my lame knowledge of it... (I havent researched much on the topic yet...)

There is a major government sponsored funding project for graduate programs. Several people I know have traveled abroad being supported by such funding. Others are being supported by this funding doing research inside Brazil.

I beleive they are making good use of the money, funding good projects and requiring that these students payback to the government by working for a couple of years inside the country.

I havent looked much because my undergrad was in the US, and they have a rule that says they wont sponsor people like me...

8:29 PM  
Blogger Anandi said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog! I used to be a scientist (I bailed on a Molecular Bio PhD program at UW in Seattle in 1997.) so I'm familiar with a lot of the "politics" surrounding academia. From what I noticed (responding to Paul W's comment) academic scientists seemed to have a tendency to look down on research funded privately (by large corporations, etc) as if to say that privately funded research could never be impartial. It was just another example of academic snootiness, and the glorification of the "starving scientist" ethic. When I left my PhD program to work at Deloitte Consulting, and now Microsoft, the clear view was that I had "sold out". Never mind that I am way happier and far more financially successful than I would have been if I had stayed in science...

I guess this didn't really have to do with your post, just general ranting about science. My advice is to only do it if you *absolutely* love it and cannot imagine another career. Otherwise it just isn't worth it. (IMHO)

Cheers and thanks for visiting my blog. (Hi Raine, too!)

11:08 PM  
Blogger Cynthia said...

I would like to see more go towards basic scientific research, but that will never happen because of the following facts:

The 12 pharmaceutical companies in the Fortune 500 made $10 billion more than the top 24 motor vehicle industry companies, which includes Ford and GM. The pharmaceutical industry has spent millions on television advertisements and lobbying against serious prescription drug legislation.
(http://bernie.house.gov/prescriptions/profits.asp)

As long as pharmaceutical companies remain lucrative, I think more and more monies will be spent on R&D at the expense of basic science research. Just my two cents.

11:09 PM  
Anonymous AppliedScientist said...

Screw basic science. Unlike in Maxwell's time, anything that has a commercial benefit no matter how far-fetched can get funding. On the other hand, do we need to know more about helium nanodroplets or the 19th digit of planck's constant? Let's be honest: "Basic science" is a scientist who doesn't know how to sell his idea or is out of touch.

12:25 AM  
Blogger mindful said...

AppliedScientist: First of all, you can't measure Planck's constant to nineteen digits with present technology. We've only got eight so far.

More substantively, the whole reason to do basic research is that you don't know where it will lead. While even dilletantes can come up with fantastic applications of their work and follow that direction, only true visionaries will be able to follow their research to its own conclusion. That's where the great discoveries come from. Do you think Planck and Schrodinger were thinking about commercial applications? And yet quantum mechanics and atomic physics are the only ways we have to understand alot of the technology that we use today. Do you think that nice LCD screen on your computer would be possible without a knowledge of quantum? How about the electronic paper we'll be using in a couple of years? It's basic, non-applied chemistry research that made those nanoparticles possible, bucko.

The point is, if even you can see the ultimate commercial applications, it's probably not a really original idea.

1:36 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

You like science, I like history. Is history science?

7:31 AM  
Blogger neil said...

So wait... should I set up the computer in the bathroom, or do you mean that figuratively?

10:44 AM  
Blogger An80sNut said...

I think they are doing a good job of focusing maths and science in college-level education but think that nationally we are failing to get our youngest students up to that level. I've started thinking more and more that we need to get the government out of schooling. The passing of the "No Child Left Behind" Act wound up adding 2 more weeks of testing to students (6 weeks in total) but nowhere have they added 2 weeks of schooling. So, somewhere in the middle of the year these children take tests on what they should know by the end of the year. Then they are expected to pick right back up from where they were 6 weeks before that and continue... that doesn't happen. Overall, I highly value maths and science and would like to see more children want to pursue it further but you never hear that.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

AppliedScientist: I mentioned Maxwell to demonstrate that unexpectedly important findings can arise from basic science research. I think it's problematic to claim that basic scientists must "sell" their research. Maxwell had no idea that his studies would rock the scientific world. By your assessment he was out of touch. Considering the importance of his work, I'm not so sure that's a valid assessment. Remember, nanotechnology started because people were studying carbon-carbon interactions in arc discharges. That is basic research that has yielded tremendous results.

paul, anandi: Take a gander at the following story by the Sacramento Bee. It details how a private contract between Novartis and Berkeley went wrong:
http://www.sacbee.com/static/live/news/projects/biotech/archive/080104.html

cynthia: True, the pharmaceutical industry is playing a terrible role in all of this.

raine: Maybe Bill Gates isn't such a bad guy after all...

danilo: Interesting... here in the states, grad students do not have any 2 year requirements to work for the gov't. Do you think that has deleterious effects on your economy?

jenn: The history of science is an active field of study. Check out some of the work by Gamow. Also, take a look at Guns, Germs and Steel.

neil: You don't need to be in the bathroom, necessarily. Just make sure to have toilet paper wherever you are.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

An80sNut: I agree completely. Current methods just aren't cutting it.

11:56 AM  
Blogger dreadcow said...

Personally, I don't think the government should fund scientific research.

Just like with the economy, private industries put out a better product.

I don't count on the government to accomplish anything.

4:12 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

dreadcow: Most of the development of new products in the private sector is a direct result of findings from gov't funded research. It has been shown time an again that gov't sponsored research stimulates technological advancement and, subsequently, our economy.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Danilo da Silva said...

In response to your question, I do not think that having a mandotory service time for your country is harmful. This would at least give the government some ROI.

There is no obligation for american government sponsored students, but not in all cases. For example, doesn't the ROTC have something?? Or private company sponsored scholarships?

7:49 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

Danilo: Yeah, ROTC people have to join the army (at the undergrad level). At the graduate level, the only form of government sponsorship that requires service is The Department of Homeland Security fellowship. Most graduate funds don't require any service, otherwise.

12:55 AM  

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