why we can’t lose our scientific explorers
Professor Brian Cox doesn’t just work on trying to solve the mysteries of the universe at CERN, he’s also one of the world’s most passionate advocates of science and technology. Earlier this year, he gave a brief speech about the need for curiosity driven research and pointed out something often missed when debating just how little cash all those scientific experiments and studies actually get. Whenever politicians are talking about the need for fiscal responsibility and decide to cut budgets for science and technology, they’re actually slicing an already infinitesimal fraction of a fraction of government outlays. And not only that, but politicians ignore how big of a payoff a successful research project can yield. Just consider how the web and lasers started out, as a curiosity and a convenient way to share highly technical information about high speed particle collisions respectively.
So let’s think about this. In an age when governments are borrowing trillions of dollars to subsidize banks, or try to jump start stalled consumer economies or deflated housing markets, what gets cut is higher education and the sciences which often amount to rounding errors in their budgets? Is it just me, or is this akin to trying to lower your mortgage payments by changing a couple of light bulbs and expecting a few less dollars per bill to cover the projected shortfall, then borrowing thousands of dollars when you realize you still can’t make the payments? And not only is this strategy meaningless and completely misguided, it also seriously restricts the career options of future scientists by cutting off their already limited funding. Why would anyone go through the trouble of study science and engineering if there’s no way to make a living at it? And why devote year after year to something the government considers to be inferior to Wall Street speculators? Little wonder that DARPA is aghast at the falling numbers of science and engineering grads, and sounding the alarm at the Pentagon.
But wait a moment, you may say, what has government funded science ever done for me? Well, for one, if you can read this post, you’re benefiting from a military communication project and the data exchange tools built to let physicists working with particle colliders exchange the latest facts and figures about their discoveries. The computers you use were originally intended as tools to help scientists accurately and quickly complete highly tedious and complex calculations and were first built by mathematicians in publicly funded universities. And if we want to talk about space travel, not only did it give us the technology necessary for CD and MP3 players as well as cell phones, it also provided us with GPS, satellite TV, and internet connections. Billions of dollars in public funds over the last five decades helped spawn trillions of dollars in economic development across the entire commercial spectrum. And some of the most important technologies that allowed these innovations to happen were just pie-in-the-sky ideas that no politician today would ever greenlight, grumbling instead about being accountable to the taxpayers about how their money is being used.
When we continually allow governments to bludgeon their science programs and higher education while they keep driving down incentives for new scientists and engineers to take on the problems of tomorrow and ask random but potentially promising questions about the world around us, what we’re really doing is saying that it’s ok to keep delaying progress. And as many developed nations continue suffer from more and more brain drain thanks to their budgetary policies, there’s a pressing question that comes to mind. How long could you keep cutting down science budgets until your country’s innovation engine sputters and effectively shuts down? Even more disturbingly, after years of dwindling emphasis on experimentation and gaining knowledge, would anyone still be left to care among the tax-paying public?