Well, it seems that (influenced by Sean, I’m sure) Maureen Dowd has picked up on John McCain’s twitter feed, and has placed yet another mocking stab at science in the mainstream press. (“Catfish and grape genetics”? Ha ha ha! “Promotion of astronomy”? Bwah!)
The specific line from McCain’s feed is the sarcastic “nothing says new jobs for average Americans like investing in astronomy”. And I think this is the essence of why scientific projects continue to be held up for derision.
Simply, most people assume science has absolutely nothing to do with them. Nobody blinks an eye at massive building projects that funnel money to construction workers, even though construction accounts for only 5% of the non-farm employment in the US. However, even though the “average american” is highly unlikely to work in construction, they at least imagine that they could.
In contrast, science is perceived as something that is done by an elite group of people that “average americans” could never hope to join, or even meet. So, it’s not that the government’s money is going to someone else, it’s that it seems to be going to someone they could never, ever be. I’ve always found it terribly sad that scientists are almost universally cast as a tribe of “others”, so distinct from “average americans” that they cease to be realistic aspirational figures. Pro-basketball players are equally unusual and elite in their physical attributes, training, and skill sets, but that doesn’t stop generation of kids wanting to grow up and play in the NBA. In contrast, scientists often come across as “born that way”, and not as the end products of rigorous training that a large fraction of smarter-than-average people could engage in. (And note that it’s not just the fault of the nebulous “media” — in their quest to climb to the top of the scientific heap, plenty of scientists cultivate an aura of “impressiveness”; while this may be useful for their individual careers, it can be plenty demoralizing for those on the lower rungs, who are questioning if they have what it takes.)
On top of this is a disconnect between what science actually does, and people’s perception of how it affects their own lives. Most “average americans” probably don’t have many gripes with the NIH budget, because they understand that curing disease is something that could potentially help them in the end. Most physical sciences, however, don’t present obvious, immediate connections to people’s day to day life, or to the main engines of the US economy. Those connections are of course there (grape genetics = wine production = millions of dollars in farming economy = tasty beverages produced more cheaply domestically), but they’re not obvious. Science is left playing catchup every time we’re mocked — yes, lots of articles came out pointing out that “volcano monitoring” was in fact useful, but not in time to stop the initial spurt of derision on the national stage.
Sadly, I don’t have any obvious solution to this, except the usual calls for increased outreach and better science teaching.