Physics is Patriotic


Well, maybe the title for this post is a little sensationalistic. To be more accurate, the funding fundamental science research is patriotic.

The Impending Tragedy of US Science

Many, many op-ed pieces have already been written about the importance of fundamental research. Just about every other issue of Physics Today or the APS Newsletter addresses the need to support science in the United States. However, despite the American Competitiveness Initiative that President Bush announced in his 2006 State of the Union Address, American science has fallen by the wayside in the past forty years (roughly since the completion of its last major national laboratory, SLAC). Granted, the United States has been the world leader in science research during this time, but its position as the leader in science and technology is slowly giving way to the EU, India, China, and Japan. If research laboratories were car manufacturing plants, politicians would be in an uproar at any hint that the US might be yielding to the rest of the world. As it is, there was more of an uproar that the US has lost its absolute dominance in international basketball rather than in the sciences.

This is truly a pitiful thing that reflects an aspect of contemporary culture that may have dangerous reprecussions for the future of American leadership in other arenas, namely the world economy. A 2005 analysis by the American Institutes for Research study on mathematics performance in primary and secondary school ranks US students consistently behind those of other developed nations. With all due respect to the rest of the world, can we really expect the next generation of economists, entrepreneurs, and engineers to be world leaders if they’re already behind countries like Latvia by the time they reach 8th grade?

It should be noted that the rapid development of research infrastructure in China and India deserves commendation as much as we are culpable for slacking our lead. However, this is due in part to the difference in cultural perceptions of science between the East and West. Where popular American culture has portrayed scientists as practitioners of the arcane and irrelevant, Nobel laureates are treated like NBA stars in Japan. (Indeed, I would invest in “American Scientists” trading cards that listed a professor’s top cited publications and h-index on the back.)

The lack of political support for science can be traced to a lack of cultural support/understanding of the importance of science. Just look at Jeopardy, largely regarded as the television show for intelligent audiences. In addition to having math and science questions that are at a jr. high school level, Jeopardy promotes this convoluted misconception that intelligence and memorization are somehow the same thing. It is a bitter irony that high school competitions such as the Department of Energy’s Jeopardy-like Science Bowl reflect very little about the actual process of doing science?

How We Got Here

Americans have to spend some time remembering how we have come to our position of scientific prominence. Prior to World War II, the United States was a nation of engineers (which are quite different from scientists). We were known as innovators who would import the latest scientific ideas from Europe and convert them into useful technology. With the advent of war, many of Europe’s top scientists (many of them Jewish) immigrated to the US where they became integral parts of US research universities. They provided the critical density of talented scientists that led to a boom in US science research. It was out of WWII that universities such as Stanford began to leave their mark on the world as institutions for fundamental research. For the past thirty-or-so years, the top international students have been attracted to the US to study at the Meccas and Medias of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. Along with the top American scientists of each generation, many of these students have remained in the US for post docs and professorships, further reinforcing the American scientific machine. With the development of the international science community (partly due to the decline of American funding) and the tightening of visa restrictions due to 9/11, US universities are losing many top-tier students.

This does not mean that more US students will simply take their spots. The dominance of US universities was based on the constant influx of the world’s best students and the fraction of whom that would stay and contribute to the US scientific program. Once these people are removed, we are taking away a part of the machine that contributes exponentially to future growth (as a student, then as a professor, and further as a beacon that solidifies the position of the US as a leader in basic research). For each such person removed from the system, more international students will choose to attend other universities, beginning a snowball-effect where the US may lose that initial “critical mass” of active researchers that led to its prominence to begin with. (This is a macroscopic version of how Harvard remains the top university in the world.)

Physics is Patriotic

The technological (including medical) applications of scientific research are well documented and the consequences thereof are well understood. The boom in particle physics funding in the 1950s, for example, rode a wave based on national defense funding in which the military implicitly saw national laboratories as research centers for bigger bombs. These days science research has led to a range of medical tools (NMR for one), stronger materials, faster computers, etc. etc. It is not my intent to discuss these technological applications of science. The allure and importance of the kind of science I do (particle physics) has no immediate technological consequences. The importance of basic research–independent of its potential for technological innovation later on–is greatly understated.

In some sense, science is a luxury item. When gas prices hit $3 last year and President Bush tapped strategic oil reserves to “protect the American way of life,” he ostensibly meant things such as driving SUVs around decentralized cities. Think what you will about that argument and the political motivation for it, but in the same sense science is something that should be protected as an American privilege. In 1780, John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams describing his role as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States:

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture…”

(He goes on to list the subjects that his children’s children may then pursue, but those are pursuits that are not in danger.)

The ability (in infrastructure and support) for a society to pursue basic research is one that represents a freedom from basic needs (food, utilities), freedom from limiting education (universities are prerequisite), and freedom from prohibitive sociopolitical unrest. It is a luxury in that a group of people, supported by the public, may dedicate their lives to understanding the mysteries of nature with no immediate economic return to the community.

Another quality that is often thought of patriotically is “American ingenuity.” They point to Thomas Edison as the manifestation of this trait. One must note however, that yesterday’s Edisons became today’s Oppenheimers, Feynmans, and Ken Wilsons. Scientists are innovators, but the public is too far removed from the scientific process to see this. The freedom to explore ideas has represented itself as creativity that has made the US the world leader in fields such as theoretical physics (with a little help from the collapse of the Soviet Union). Countries, such as China and Korea, that are catching up to the US in the sciences are doing so largely by restructuring their early education such that it allows for more openness to ask questions and think creatively. The [American] development of string theory–even if it doesn’t pan out–must be recognized as one of the most ingenious, clever, creative, and remarkable feats of a collective human endeavor.

Physics and the sciences in general promote a basic way of thinking that is central to problem solving. A scientist questions commonly held beliefs in search of truth (artists do the same with a different set of tools). It is objective and rational, unbiased by personal interests. In the same sense an educated populace that can think critically about issues is a prerequisite for an effective democracy. If not physics or science itself, it is imperative for citizens to be educated and well-versed in the principles of scientific thinking. (I’ll grant that it is then their choice whether or not they want to think rationally, but at least they should have a choice to make.) I cannot overemphasize this point: in order for a democracy to work, the citizens who are voting must be able to understand and evaluate issues intelligently. Education and rational thought is the basis for a sound democracy. Otherwise, special interests can manipulate the system into an effective oligarchy or theocracy.

Finally, there is inherent value in the pursuit of science. In one word, science is about wonder. It is the spirit of curiosity about the universe around, the quest to understand nature. As a physicist (albeit a biased voice), it is this sense of wonder that makes it worth getting out of bed every morning.

Robert Wilson, one of the major figures in bringing American physics into the atomic era, was onced asked to justify the creation of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory with respect to national security. His response included the famous line:

It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.

He also explained the pursuit of basic science int erms of “the dignity of men, our love of culture,” and “all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about.”

Science is Patriotic.

Where To Go From Here

We are now in a controversial war where we spend billions of dollars in military costs every month. Our Department of Defense budget is an order of magnitude greater than any other country. It is two orders of magnitude greater than the entire Department of Energy budget, of which a fraction goes towards the Office of Science. Meanwhile, large portions of our population are separated by an educational divide / digital divide / opportunity divide and are undereducated and underprepared to participate effectively in a high-tech economy.

Science and science education are not panaceas, but they are foundational blocks that may cure some of the causes of current problems. What is necessary, I believe, is a cultural paradigm shift that is more accepting of scientific pursuits.

A rough road map:

  • Funding: Like art, basic research in science requires a patron. Today the patron in fields such as particle physics is almost exclusively from the public purse as administered by the government. Fields with more immediate applications such as microbiology and genetics have more options for funding. Basic science cannot occur without funding and it should be protected (and increased!); the current administration’s proposed FY 2007 Department of Energy budget under the American Competitiveness Initiative was the first actual increase in the DOE’s science budget over inflation. Further, spending must be arranged for in advance such as in the CERN model where funds for scientific programs are allocated every five years. As it is American scientific projects, which are increasingly long-term, must struggle with the uncertainties of annual budgeting.
  • Education: Science education should stress rational thought and problem solving rather than rote memorization. The two groups that are being underserved by the present public education system (and here I refer mainly to large urban school districts) are students who have fallen behind and those who are advanced. Students who fall behind largely stay behind and end up undereducated. Students who are advanced are held back by the school system and are unable to pursue further opportunities. I’m not well versed in current opinions on how to improve education, but I believe that it is grossly underfunded and undervalued.
  • Trust Scientists: One of the major goals of education should be rational thought. I’m not sure how it came to be that scientists stopped being trusted, but since the 1960s people stopped listening to them. Scientists undergo rigorous education and training to become qualified to be experts in their field. It’s one thing to disagree with them based on their methodology or evidence, but how have we gotten to the point where Intelligent Design becomes a valid scientific issue? (ID is a legitimate thing to be taught–in the religious studies department.) Somehow there’s been this quiet pop schema of the “mad scientist,” the repeated reincarnation of Dr. Strangelove in media. Why do we have (super)heros whose archnemeses are “evil geniuses?”
  • Appreciate Scientists: There are many, many unsung occupations. Nurses, teachers, social welfare agents, etc. These all deserve much more appreciation from the public than they currently receive. I must make a special plea on behalf of scientists, however. The path to becoming a professor or research scientist is long, self-sacrificing, and difficult. I’m curious if the average citizen would know the major hurdles (quals, thesis + defense, etc.) and time spent in graduate school for a scientific field? At times it can require monk/ninja-like focus and discipline. As a career scientists must chisel away at the frontier of human knowledge–this can be both tremendously exciting but also very demanding. And for what? The average citizen has very little reason to care about the result of current scientific research, and hence has very little reason to care about science. This creates a cultural apathy that must be remedied.
  • Make scientists/science accessible: Connect the population to science. Encourage scientists (as the NSF is already doing by means of grant stipulations) to continue outreach programs. The image of the scientist in media needs to be amended. Show the glamor of being a scientist every once in a while. Show the daily grind of being a scientist, as well. Sometimes these are the same thing. (Shows such as Numb3rs promote the science, but do not shed enough light on the life of a scientist.)
  • Increase public/private support: The time of Bell Labs, unfortunately, is over. Basic science is largely under the auspices of the government and public funding, while applied research quickly ends up being patented by pharmaceutical companies or the like. Beyond money, however, is a cultural perception that needs to accept and promote science as something that is important.
  • Appeal to our national pride: My point has been that (American) science is patriotic. ((And science in general is a good thing for humanity.)) Part of the continued science boom in the 1960s was the space race, in which nationalism pushed scientific endeavors even more than defense spending. In an age where international collaboration is the standard, scientists need to be able to simultaneously appeal to national pride to flex our scentific capacity. The SLAC-based BaBar and KEK-based Belle B-meson factories, for example, greatly benefitted by their “friendly rivalry” to increase luminosity and make key discoveries before one another.

Science is an American past time. Just ask Benjamin Franklin.

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