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Education Government The Almighty Buck Science

The Crisis of Government-Funded Science 194

eldavojohn writes "The New York Review of Books has an article penned by Steven Weinberg lamenting the future of physics, cosmology and this era of 'big science' in which we find ourselves. A quote from Goldhaber sums up the problem nicely, 'The first to disintegrate a nucleus was Rutherford, and there is a picture of him holding the apparatus in his lap. I then always remember the later picture when one of the famous cyclotrons was built at Berkeley, and all of the people were sitting in the lap of the cyclotron.' The article is lengthy with a history of big physics projects (most painfully perhaps the SSC) but Weinberg's message ultimately comes across as pessimism laced with fatalism — easily understandable given his experiences with government funding. Unfortunately he notes, 'Big science has the special problem that it can't easily be scaled down. It does no good to build an accelerator tunnel that only goes halfway around the circle.' Apparently this article mirrors his talk given in January at the American Astronomical Society. If not our government, will anyone fund these immense projects or will physics slowly grind to a halt due to fiscal constraints?"
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The Crisis of Government-Funded Science

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  • by crazyjj ( 2598719 ) * on Monday April 23, 2012 @09:33AM (#39770133)

    If not our government, will anyone fund these immense projects or will physics slowly grind to a halt due to fiscal constraints?"

    I presume by "our government" he means the U.S. government. Why is it that that so many of those who lament science funding only talk about U.S. funding, as if the U.S. is supposed to fund everything by itself? He cites the SSH as a bad example of the U.S. cutting funding, but to me that's actually one of the better examples of other countries picking up the ball. Would CERN still have funded the LHC in 1995 if the U.S. hadn't cancelled the SHH in 1993? Maybe, but I tend to doubt it. And to me CERN is an excellent model of countries pooling their resources, rather than relying on one actor to foot the entire bill.

    I'm not saying that the U.S. shouldn't be funding science at adequate levels, but way too many of these sorts of articles talk about science as if it's the exclusive purview of the U.S. Instead of asking if the U.S. can continue funding the big physics projects, maybe the question he should be asking is why more countries aren't POOLING their money to build these projects. After all, as long as the science is open and shared, why shouldn't it be in everyone's interest to fund these projects (including, but not *exclusively* including, the U.S.)?

  • by crazyjj ( 2598719 ) * on Monday April 23, 2012 @09:45AM (#39770243)

    Slashdot is U.S.-centric, but science (and science funding) shouldn't be. You would think a physicist, who relies on the work of so many predecessors or so many different nationalities, would recognize that. Why more scientists aren't recognizing CERN as a great model for the future is beyond me.

  • by dkf ( 304284 ) <> on Monday April 23, 2012 @09:54AM (#39770339) Homepage

    In this case, it's reasonable for The New York Review of Books to be somewhat US-centric. After all, its primary audience is in the US.

    However, there continues to be a strong case for pooling scientific funding (and projects and instruments and ...) across many countries, especially when those projects are very large. You're not going to get all the best people in the world working in one country in any mature field (for all sorts of complex reasons) and you do want the best people talking to each other. Once they start talking, they will come up with ideas for areas to research; those are the seeds of proposals and projects. Given all that, pooled funding also makes sense. Well, provided the various funding agencies agree; that doesn't always go smoothly...

    Given all the above, the disappointing thing is that tNYRoB didn't pick up on this matter. It's a reasonably well respected publication that at least tries to be not too parochial. Pity they failed this time (if only perhaps in the choice of Steven Weinberg).

  • Government OUT! (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 23, 2012 @09:59AM (#39770415)

    Let the free market decide. This country is great because of private business research. We haven't needed government funding till the socialist fascist democrats took over. Before then it was science for miles funded completely by virtuous businesses.

    If the American people don't want the Higgs then why should government force them to have it?

    Ron Paul 2012!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 23, 2012 @09:59AM (#39770419)

    The reality is that "government" itself really isn't anything other than wealth collected by force. For some reason people have come to think of it as a problem solver, when all it can really do is collect and spend money... usually inefficiently and recklessly. It has very little interest in spending money wisely as the political winds blow different directions every day. Government exists to protect the rational from the irrational.
    I see a need for a separation of science and government. Get it out of setting policies regarding stem cells, cancer treatments, etc. Those that argue it is needed to advance science have forgotten the lessons of the past. The repression of science and new ideas from kings, popes, and populist insanity. Sure it is nice to get a phat grant from the endless US coffers, but at what *real* cost? Government has no place amongst the rational.

  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Monday April 23, 2012 @10:01AM (#39770435)

    The Democrats go. We want to Keep Businesses out of Government, as businesses with their big money will corrupt government.

    You claim that when the Democrats have:

    1) Had the government purchase a whole car company.
    2) Wrote a health care law to funnel money from consumers to the insurance industry.
    3) Given hundreds of millions in loans to green companies who donated sufficiently to the Democrats.
    4) Basically dictated to banks they WERE going to take a huge sum of bail-out money, like it or not.

    Never before have LARGE business and government been so twisted together, and that happened on the Democrats watch, mostly while it had total control.

    The Republicans go. We want to Keep Government out of Businesses, as government with their big money will cripple businesses.

    But not all Republicans. There are also Republicans willing to interfere in business or to prop up large companies at the expense of the smaller.

    Also I have never heard a single person say you should keep government out of business because the government money "cripples" the business. It's more than companies that are over-regualted cannot function.

    To label the two sides like that is absurd because you can find counter-examples in each party. You SHOULD NOT mention party when complaining about this kind of issue, instead you should point out both sides have flaws in this regard and it's up to the people voting to look and see what each candidate stands for when they are voting.

    Basically you have I think way too simplistic a view of how the world is currently for what is really going on.

  • by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Monday April 23, 2012 @10:08AM (#39770499) Journal

    While I sympathize with the point of TFA's author, I'm not sure if it's that simple.

    More government funding, which is the source of big dollars, isn't an unalloyed good.

    From Eisenhower's famous speech about the (dangers of) military-industrial complex:

    Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientifictechnological elite.

    The more that funding is a result of the POLITICAL process, all the more will science be politicized. For scientists to expect money "no strings attached" would be staggeringly naive.

    Pure science is absolutely critical to the continued advancement of our society.

    Considering the diminishing returns and extraordinary numbers required to push out the boundaries of human knowledge, I don't know where the dollars could come from WITHOUT government, but funding from government is invariably a tarbaby that makes everyone sticky and dirty.

  • by orasio ( 188021 ) on Monday April 23, 2012 @10:29AM (#39770699) Homepage

    The country that builds the large labs is the country that willl get the super smart scientists to tinker with it.
    The world doesn't need the US to fund big science. China will do it, eventually. The thing is that it would give them a competitive advantadge over you, meaning better scientists, better universities and stuff. I wouldn't want to lose my edge if I was the US.

  • Re:Government OUT! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by skids ( 119237 ) on Monday April 23, 2012 @10:44AM (#39770837) Homepage

    The "Free Market" most people rave about is a mathematical fantasy that is based on incorrect assumptions. No "Free Market" would have created nuclear power, for example, as the initial investments were too much for any business ledger to survive.

    Take for example, Google -- they regularly take media heat for spending down on basic research. If they just ignored this pressure from stockholders, their stock would tank, so occasionally they back off. The "Free Market" punishes too much ambition, or any large amount of spending directed at creating a marketplace that benefits the world at large more than it benefits the individual company.

    Occasionally visionary company executives manage to convince investors that something good for the economy at large is worth investing in. Most of the time they fly smaller projects under the radar. The Government has the same problem, in that politicians have to deal with pressures from the public over the debt. Corruption in either sphere has long turn deleterious consequences because it increases adversion to big speculative projects.

    Certain types of progress absolutely require levels of effort beyond what the corporate sector is able muster. If we want top make these kinds of progress we have to pool resources. So we should not complain that that gets done, we should just complain when it gets done wrong, most especially when the mistake was easily preventable.

Promising costs nothing, it's the delivering that kills you.