Civic duty

20Jan07

I’ve opted to leave off the name of the Senator to whom I’ve e-mailed this. This is not meant to be a form letter. Perhaps it will encourage a few people to write their own letters. I’d be happy for constructive criticism for future letters to congress.

Dear Senator,

I am a graduate student in theoretical high energy physics currently studying abroad in the United Kingdom on a Marshall Scholarship. As a student representative of US science in a European university, I often find myself at a loss for words trying to answer how the country that has been at the forefront of scientific research has, in the past decade, slowly withdrawn its support of fundamental science.

While fundamental science — including particle physics, cosmology, and astrophysics — supports tens of thousands of jobs in the US, spearheads new technologies, and interfaces with many of our nation’s industries, the true importance of fundamental research is the ability to inspire and educate the public. What happened to the generation of children who wanted to grow up to become astronauts? Fundamental science is the frontier of human knowledge and there is an adventure waiting for those who choose to explore it.

At the educational level, science is about more than producing scientists, it is about the application of rational thought. The ability to objectively interpret information, at the heart of the scientific method, is one of the basic principles of any sensible democracy. Even more broadly, science is an enterprise that reflects upon the culture that surrounds it. For me, the ability to place science on a national pedestal — without worrying about political or social stability — is a representation of American freedom. For all of our economic and military strength, we must also show its character in a fields guided by funamental natural truths, not money, nor gender, color or creed.

The congressional flat line continuing resolution on the FY 2007 budget is obstructing $500 million of funding from the Office of Science[1] to support research this year. This considerable sum is roughly equivalent to the cost of three days of US military operations in Iraq[2], a single tactical Tomahawk missile[3], or the President’s 2004 re-election campaign budget[4]. In my field, particle physics, all eyes have shifted from the US to Europe as the CERN laboratory in Geneva is now host to the world’s premiere high energy physics research.

The threat of a ‘brain drain’ from American fundamental research would affect far more than the status of our premiere research institutions. The American public benefits tremendously from fundamental science’s ability to inspire wonder. Discussions of research topics such as dark matter and string theory have made their way into our popular culture. National awareness of the scientific frontier, in turn, contributes to an educated and creative work force in the technology sector and other cutting edge industries. Indeed, many of our students of science at the undergraduate and postgraduate level have become proven innovators.

You can learn more about the frontier of my own field from the ‘Quantum Universe’ reports for policy makers published by the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel[5]. A further discussion of the importance of high energy physics support at this time are outlined in two reports by the National Academies, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”[6] and “Revealing the Hidden Nature of Space and Time”[7].

In the immediate and near future American scientists are at the mercy of congressional support to make broad improvements in support for the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and NASA. Further suffocation of scientific funding may critically undermine US leadership in certain fields of research, and leave a legacy of missed opportunities for years to come.

Senator, please support American science.
Sincerely,

[me]


[1] link
[2] link, link
[3] link
[4] link
[5] “Quantum Universe” and “Discovering the Quantum Universe”
Prepared by the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel and supported by the National Science Foundation and Office of Science. Available online (print copy available at no cost).
[6] “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future”
Published by the National Academies Press, ISBN: 0309100453. Available online.
[7] “Revealing the Hidden Nature of Space and Time: Charting the Course for Elementary Particle Physics”
Prepared by the EPP2010 Committee of the National Academies. Available online.



2 Responses to “Civic duty”

  1. The EPP2010 report URL has been inaccessible for some time. I’ve been trying to get hold of the report with no success. Are there other places one could download it from?

  2. Ah! Thanks for the observation! I’ve found a working link to the report:

    http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11641.html

    The link from the EPP2010 website has the prefix “fermat.nap.edu” instead of “books.nap.edu”. I’ve fixed the link above.



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