science and technology? who needs that junk?!

December 20, 2009 — 2 Comments

Science and high tech research aren’t faring well in the United States thanks to a myriad of issues that range from blatant anti-intellectualism, to lack of foresight and patience on the part of governments and investors. It seems that every time a budget needs to be cut, education and R&D are among the first victims. And this isn’t just a U.S. problem. The Science and Technology Facilities Council across the pond is announcing that due to a £115 million deficit, the UK will be ending its role in prestigious scientific projects. That means almost a quarter of fellowships and post-doc research positions will go bye-bye as noted by Dr. Ian O’Neill in the link, above and opportunities for UK’s scientists are going to be severely reduced to plug a small budget hole.

Considering that we’re living in a year of bailout and emergency funding, it seems bizarre, yet understandable why politicians wouldn’t want to help science and technology research while shelling out billions after billions across the economic spectrum. Think about the approach we take to research projects in general. Everybody praises scientists for new computers, breakthrough discoveries and medical treatments that give us a brand new way to effectively treat diseases. But does anyone want to pay for it from public funds? Not really. Since a great deal of the research being done today is very obscure to those who aren’t skilled in the discipline which is being advanced, and at first glance it’s hard to tell what the benefits of the research might be, we’re often hit by arguments against funding scientific research along the lines of “how will this help starving children of give people jobs?” And because the answers aren’t immediately forthcoming, there’s little political consequence to a massive cut of an R&D budget or the abandonment of a funding body for scientific projects.

Once obscure research into microbiology gave us germ theory, vaccines and antibiotics. A small side-project at a predecessor to the LHC at CERN gave us the internet and tools for more precise radiation therapy used in oncology. The space program gave us the base technologies for today’s small, portable devices like cellular phones, satellite communication, CD and eventually, MP3 players. Science does create jobs, it just doesn’t do it in an instant by waiving a magic wand. This is why to leave an R&D funding body floating over a debt that’s a rounding error compared to the kinds of loans and bailouts already given by governments across the West as the UK seems to be doing with the STFC, is an act of irresponsible shortsightedness. To symbolically save a pittance, the nation is shooting its future in the foot. The irony of the matter is groan worthy since compared to the annual monetary churn of banks and multinational corporations, as well as the cash plunged into a black hole of earmarks and pork barrels, scientific endeavors are a bargain. And in times of economic turmoil, the bargains are the ones being hit by cuts, not the behemoths burning through trillions in cash.

[ illustration by Vadim Gousmanov ]

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  • Pierce R. Butler

    A small side-project at a predecessor to the LHC at CERN gave us the internet …

    Nope, just the Web. This here internet thingie sprung off from an attempt to speed up collaboration at various Pentagon-sponsored university programs.

  • Greg Fish

    Pierce,

    Yes, you’re right. The internet was created by DARPA while CERN created the web, which was spun off from Tim Bernes Lee’s attempt to create a way for physicists to share data on the collisions being carried out.

    I should’ve been more clear, especially since the web and internet are used pretty much interchangeably today.