Category: Science and Politics

Science does stimulate

By Daniel Holz | February 7, 2009 10:37 pm

There has been much discussion in the comments of our recent posts here and here on the stimulus package, the gist of which seems to be that science shouldn’t be part of the stimulus, since it doesn’t effectively create jobs and boost the economy. I would argue that not only does science funding directly translate into cash infusions into the economy (much more effectively than tax cuts, for example), but it also helps boost the economy over the longer term (which is arguably just as important). Mark Westneat, Pritzker Director of the Biodiversity Synthesis Center at the Field Museum in Chicago, has written a nice piece addressing the immediate stimulus from science funding. As he puts it, “scientific research is basically all about hiring people and buying stuff”.

Seal of the United States Senate CV readers may be getting sick and tired of hearing all about the unfolding funding drama in Washington. Unfortunately, the decisions by these 100 individuals will have tremendous repercussions, not only this year, but potentially for the foreseeable future (since they set the tone for science spending in an era of immense budgetary pressure).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics

Help make the sausage

By Daniel Holz | February 4, 2009 12:22 am

Over 100 years ago, Otto von Bismark declared: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” John has been detailing the development of the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009 (HR 1)” here, here, and here. The bottom line is that the House version of the bill will reinvigorate basic science in this country. The Senate version of the bill is not as encouraging. According to an email alert sent out by the APS, the Senate summary

…did not offer many details about how much funding science would receive in that package. However, we are receiving troubling signs that science may not receive the same levels of funding as in the House package and would even, in some scenarios, be cut or even eliminated. We are therefore urging the Senate to follow the House lead in helping to ensure American competitiveness in the 21st century by making critically needed infrastructure investments.

Science Magazine has compiled a side-by-side comparison. For example, the House bill funds the NSF at $3 Billion, while the Senate version is at $1.4 Billion. The DOE Office of Science (which is the largest source of funding for basic research in the physical sciences in the US) gets $2 Billion from the House, and $430 Million from the Senate. These are huge gaps. And note that all of the CV bloggers are funded, at least in part, by these agencies (for doing science, not for blogging). The AAAS analyzes the differences between the two versions of the bill in some detail here.

A staggering amount of national treasure is about to be spent in an attempt to stimulate our economy. [The picture below is of one billion dollars, in $100 bills (hat tip to commenter Carlos).] one billion dollarsAlthough one can certainly criticize the idiocy that has brought us to this crisis, and second-guess the appropriate dollar amounts, few would question that some sort of action is appropriate. Congress is currently being bombarded with suggestions for how to spend our national treasure. Roads and bridges will most certainly be built. However, I believe a compelling case can be made for funding science, both as a way to create short-term jobs and benefits, but also as an essential path to ensuring the future vitality of our country (both economically and spiritually). Fortunately, this message has already been heard, and Congress is struggling to do the right thing. But scientists are notoriously bad at contacting their representatives, and reminding them that we exist and are worth supporting. This is a participatory democracy, after all.

So, what is to be done? CV readers have had an easy time of it thus far, enjoying the spectacle, chiming in on occasion, and generally basking in the glow of their monitors. But now it’s time to get off your duffs and click a few buttons. (Non-American readers are off the hook.) The APS has made it simple and painless to send emails to your Senators encouraging them to support basic science. Just click on the link, change the subject and a line or two of the form email, and click submit. These emails really do make a difference, especially if there are many of them. This is why the NRA and the AARP have so much clout. Spend a minute on the web form. If you are slightly more ambitious, you can also call your Senators. A friendly young staffer is eagerly awaiting your call, and will jot down another checkmark next to the “fund basic science” entry on their ledger. Every checkmark matters. Then you can rest easy, knowing that you’ve put in your two cents on the way your government spends your hard-earned tax dollars.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics

Even More on the Stimulus

By John Conway | February 3, 2009 7:09 pm

I’m sorry, but I cannot seem to get this stimulus package off my mind. For my whole life I have watched the federal government bounce along with a few hundred billion dollars of non-military discretionary spending, give or take. Mostly take – this portion of the federal budget is the part most under pressure, year to year. Of course the largest portion of federal spending goes into servicing the national debt, and into Medicare and Social Security. But I digress.

Now, under extreme economic duress brought about, ultimately, by the collapse of the housing market and with mortgage-backed securities added as an accelerant, the economy is in free fall. The government is seemingly on the verge of an absolutely massive, $900 billion spending spree, most of which is for the sorts of discretionary spending that would have taken years, or decades, to happen. If ever. It’s among the most extraordinary things I think I have seen in my life.

Many in Washington appear to be very, very, nervous about doing this, but just about all are convinced that the government needs to do something, whatever it can, to avert what would amount to a very long, deep economic depression. Opinions abound, and there is a lot of crazy stuff being said on both sides. A lot of it comes down to the old partisan bickering about how the Dems want to tax and spend, and all the Repubs want is to stop spending and cut taxes (though all they did when in power was cut taxes, for corporations and the already rich, and dramatically increase spending). There has been a lot of noise about this or that item in the various versions of the bill, with detractors invariably questioning its “stimulatory” value. (For example, check out what the GOP thinks is non-stimulatory here.)

So what’s the best thing for the government to spend money on? Where does one get the best bang for the buck? Lost in the main stream media discussions has been any mention of the velocity of money. If the government spends a dollar on something, how likely is it that it will be spent again, and again? How likely is it to generate revenue? Create jobs? Increase GDP?

If money has velocity, then its mass must be its value. The product of the two is the momentum of the economy. And, as good physics students, we all know that to change momentum you need a force. That, I assume, would be prices: the less the price the more likely you are to spend it, increasing the velocity. But, then, the lower the price the more value the money has – here the analogy with Newtonian physics breaks down. It’s non-linear.

Over at there is a very interesting, if short, article by James K. Galbraith. But even more interesting is the graph accompanying it:


They say this comes from Moody’s, though I have not found it yet…I am not a subscriber. It purports to show the economic return enjoyed for each type of dollar spent, though I am not quite clear on just how economic return is defined.

Anyway, taken at face value this graph would seem to squelch definitively the incessant chant for tax cuts, and give strong motivation for spending on infrastructure and the economic safety net. Come on, MSM, cover this story! Galbraith’s main point is that the government ought to be taking a much longer view, and I think that at least part of the $900 billion stimulus does exactly that: the portion devoted to research and development can lead to the sorts of new technologies that will truly sustain the next economic expansion.

I would love to see added to the graph above a bar corresponding to federal support for basic scientific R&D. Even if you just figure that if you give a professor money she spends it all on hiring a postdoc, how does that impact the economy? One of my main worries is that all the science money in the stimulus package will go to “one-shot” big-ticket items, when what we need is people, too. But that kind of money is not represented by a one-off stimulus, but a sustained year to year program of spending on science. What we need is a long-term increase in federal spending on science. A long term commitment, in other words, reflecting basic science policy.

Indeed, also lost in the discussion has been this: just what the hell is the federal budget for 2010? Ordinarily, the administration’s budget request would be rolled out the second week of February or so. Like, next Monday. Not to mention that there would usually be a State of the Union address; all we know for the past 10 days is that Obama will address Congress some time in mid-February. If I were him I would like to do it after passing the stimulus package…

We do live in interesting times.

The National S(mut)cience Foundation

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 29, 2009 1:29 am

Oh. My.

It seems that in between administering grants, some personnel at the NSF have been watching porn. A lot of porn. While at the office.

Politico reports:

In one particularly egregious case, the report says one NSF “senior official” was discovered to have spent as much as 20 percent of his working hours over a two-year interval “viewing sexually explicit images and engaging in sexually explicit online ‘chats’ with various women.”

As a result, Senator Grassley is threatening to hold up the NSF’s share of the stimulus package.

Grassley’s office has asked the foundation to turn over all “specific reports of investigations, audit reports, evaluations and information supporting the examination of the NSF network drive” by Thursday in an effort to “ensure that NSF properly fulfills its mission to strengthen scientific and engineering research, and makes responsible use of the public funding provided for these research disciplines.”

“The semiannual report raises real questions about how the National Science Foundation manages its resources, and Congress ought to demand a full accounting before it gives the agency another $3 billion in the stimulus bill,” Grassley said.

I’m sure this is comedy gold, but, I can’t seem to get past “Ick” and “Ugh”.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics

More on the Stimulus

By John Conway | January 27, 2009 4:45 pm

Two weeks ago the US House released their nascent version of the $825 billion stimulus bill, which later passed in committee and was introduced to the House floor yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Senate unveiled its version of the stimulus package, with a much more terse summary. Oddly, the section specifically mentioning science only talks about NSF and NASA:


National Science Foundation (NSF) Research: $1.4 billion in funding for scientific research, infrastructure and competitive grants.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): $1.5 Billion for NASA, including $500 million for Earth science missions to provide critical data about the Earth’s resources and climate.

What about the DOE Office of Science? NIH? NIST? NOAA? I surely hope that the next summary will call out items to the level the House summary did. But, further down, under Energy, we find

$40 billion to the Department of Energy for development of clean, efficient, American

Whoa. Suddenly, the DOE is not your daddy’s Atomic Energy Commission any more! (Or your grand-dad’s Office of Naval Research…) In fact, I winder just how many congresscritters really know the history of the DOE, that its 2008 $24.6 billion budget included

  • – $8.7 billion for energy programs, of which $4.4 billion is for science, and most of the rest is for actual energy projects, and
  • – $15.5 billion for weapons activities, of which $5.4 billion is for nuclear cleanup.

By my calculation, therefore, the non-weapons, non-basic-research part of DOE’s budget is less than 20% of the whole DOE program.

So what will this mysterious $40 billion for in the Senate plan be for? Do they seriously envision giving ten times the present budget to that portion of the DOE and say, “here, invent clean, efficient American energy”. I am going to guess that the “$40 billion” is going to augment the DOE Office of Science programs in basic research by something like the $1.9 billion in the House bill (of which $400 million was specifically tagged for energy research). But what about the other $38 billion?

Anyway it all boggles the mind. No doubt the so-called “Clean Coal” people will be all over this, as will the T. Boone Pickens compressed natural gas types, those who want enormous (and I mean freakin’ enormous – do the math) wind farms and the supporters of first- (ick) and second-generation biofuels. (I say “ick” because corn-based methanol is simply a big waste of resources). To me it seems that that “energy” is clearly the buzzword these days. (It will certainly be in the title of my next proposal, but with “high” in front of it.)

Two main areas of debate and discussion spring to my mind here. Firstly, I think that it is high time to merge the disparate funding agencies which support basic research into a cabinet-level Department of Science, rather than a dozen little agencies. This was discussed (and eventually dismissed) in the early Clinton years, the argument essentially being that “the more spigots the better.”

Secondly, we have the much more difficult question: Where will all this new, efficient, clean American energy actually come from? Presently we have in place systems for nuclear, hydro, solar, fossil, wind, and geothermal. Fossil fuels dominate by far in the US. It is interesting, in fact, to look at the DOE’s Energy Information Agency’s chart of where it all comes from and where it goes (as of 2007):

As you can see we are rather heavily dependent on coal, oil, and gas. I wonder if the average person on the street quite realizes just how deep we are into carbon based energy…

I am all for research into new approaches to energy, but we are going to have to be realistic about the basic underlying physics. And we had better fund basic research in physics in our universities if a new generation of physicists is going to emerge to develop new energy sources, and spend all these taxpayer dollars effectively.

We live in amazing times.

Steven Chu Addresses the National Labs

By John Conway | January 22, 2009 2:20 pm

The new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, addressed the national labs in an all-hands video transmission today. I was not there, but my colleague and friend Rob Roser at Fermilab was there, and sent me a very nice bulleted summary. So, you are getting this second hand, and people who were there can add nuances in the comments, but here goes:

  • Energy is the defining issue of our time.
  • Addressing the environment is the major reason Chu took on this job.
  • These problems provide a tremendous opportunity for the DOE, but it comes with a burden: we can not fail.
  • The DOE is the principal supporter of physical sciences in the US, and the physical sciences are the conernstone of prosperity for the US future.
  • This was part of the message of the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report.
  • The DOE should endeavor to replace the great industrial labs that no longer exist as they once did.
  • The DOE will be the “go to” organization for a multitude of key problems — will depend on all labs to help.
  • The DOE can quite literally “save the world” by developing a sound energy policy going forward, and invent new science that will provide new technologies.
  • Our current use of energy not sustainable — have to move forward.
  • We are facing something society has never been asked to do before: to deal with ominous problems with climate change. If half of the things climate science tells us are half true, we have a huge problem on our hands and the DOE has to work to provide those solutions.
  • The Obama administration is creating a new Energy and Climate Change Council which will serve as a coordinating body including all stake holders in this arena. DOE is first and formost in this but Interior, Agriculture, Treasury and Defense etc. all play a role.
  • The DOE is the science and technology “arm of energy”.
  • There is a core of truly oustanding scientists at the national labs, and these labs have trained many successful scientists.
  • The national labs are “crown jewels that the US doesn’t want to lose”.
  • Restimulation of the economy is #1 on the priority list. DOE will get considerable funds in the stimulus package, not just to get the economy going but to provide a long term path for the US.
  • We can’t be completely overwhelmed by the short term economic woes; we need to still find a path to solve our long term problems. The DOE has to invent transformative technologies that will allow us to get to the next level of energy independence.
  • Chu sees a lot of young and middle age scientists shifting careers to deal with energy, and the DOE is optimistic to capture the best and brightest to work on these issues.

I am truly awed by the vision presented by Chu here, and so hopeful that we can get our country back on a path to long term prosperity by supporting research in the physical sciences. At least half of our present economy relies on the knowledge gained in the 20th century about our physical world…one can only imagine the revolutions to come.

The Varieties of Crackpot Experience

By Sean Carroll | January 5, 2009 10:58 am

Frank Tipler is a crackpot. At one point in his life, he did very good technical work in general relativity; he was the first to prove theorems that closed timelike curves could not be constructed in local regions of spacetime without either violating the weak energy condition or creating a singularity. But alas, since then he has pretty much gone off the deep end, and more recently has become known for arguments for Christianity based on fundamental physics. If you closely at those arguments (h/t wolfgang), you find things like this:

If life is to guide the entire universe, it must be co-extensive with the entire universe. We can say that life must have become OMNIPRESENT in the universe by the end of time. But the very act of guiding the universe to eliminate event horizons – an infinite number of nudges – causes the entropy and hence the complexity of the universe to increase without limit. Therefore, if life is to continue guiding the universe – which it must, if the laws of physics are to remain consistent – then the knowledge of the universe possessed by life must also increase without limit, becoming both perfect and infinite at the final singularity. Life must become OMNISCIENT at the final singularity. The collapse of the universe will have provided available energy, which goes to infinity as the final singularity is approached, and this available energy will have become entirely under life’s control. The rate of use of this available energy – power – will diverge to infinity as the final singularity is approached. In other words, life at the final singularity will have become OMNIPOTENT. The final singularity is not in time but outside of time. On the boundary of space and time, as described in detail by Hawking and Ellis [6]. So we can say that the final singularity – the Omega Point – is TRANSCENDANT to space, time and matter.

All of the signs of classic crackpottery are present; the vague and misplaced appeal to technical terminology, the spelling mistakes and capital letters, the random use of “must” and “therefore” when no actual argument has been given. Two paragraphs later, we get:

Science is not restricted merely to describing only what happens inside the material universe, any more than science is restricted to describing events below the orbit of the Moon, as claimed by the opponents of Galileo. Like Galileo, I am convinced that the only scientific approach is to assume that the laws of terrestrial physics hold everywhere and without exception – unless and until an experiment shows that these laws have a limited range of application.

Compares self with Galileo! 40 points! There is really no indication that the person who wrote this was once writing perfectly sensible scientific papers.

Perhaps you will not be surprised to find that Tipler has now jumped into global-warming denialism. In just a few short paragraphs, we are treated to the following gems of insight (helpfully paraphrased):

People say that anthropogenic global warming is now firmly established, but that’s what they said about Ptolemaic astronomy! Therefore, I am like Copernicus.

A scientific theory is only truly scientific if it makes predictions “that the average person can check for himself.” (Not making this up.)

You know what causes global warming? Sunspots!

Sure, you can see data published that makes it look like the globe actually is warming. But that data is probably just fabricated. It snowed here last week!

If the government stopped funding science entirely, we wouldn’t have these problems.

You know who I remind myself of? Galileo.

Stillman Drake, the world’s leading Galileo scholar, demonstrates in his book “Galileo: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2001) that it was not theologians, but rather his fellow physicists (then called “natural philosophers”), who manipulated the Inquisition into trying and convicting Galileo. The “out-of-the-mainsteam” Galileo had the gall to prove the consensus view, the Aristotlean theory, wrong by devising simple experiments that anyone could do. Galileo’s fellow scientists first tried to refute him by argument from authority. They failed. Then these “scientists” tried calling Galileo names, but this made no impression on the average person, who could see with his own eyes that Galileo was right. Finally, Galileo’s fellow “scientists” called in the Inquisition to silence him.

One could go on, but what’s the point? Well, perhaps there are two points worth making.

First, Frank Tipler is probably very “intelligent” by any of the standard measures of IQ and so forth. In science, we tend to valorize (to the point of fetishizing) a certain kind of ability to abstractly manipulate symbols and concepts — related to, although not exactly the same as, the cult of genius. (It’s not just being smart that is valorized, but a certain kind of smart.) The truth is, such an ability is great, but tends to be completely uncorrelated with other useful qualities like intellectual honesty and good judgment. People don’t become crackpots because they’re stupid; they become crackpots because they turn their smarts to crazy purposes.

Second, the superficially disconnected forms of crackpottery that lead on the one hand to proving Christianity using general relativity, and on the other to denying global warming, clearly emerge from a common source. The technique is to first decide what one wants to be true, and then come up with arguments that support it. This is a technique that can be used by anybody, for any purpose, and it’s why appeals to authority aren’t to be trusted, no matter how “intelligent” that authority seems to be.

Tipler isn’t completely crazy to want “average people” to be able to check claims for themselves. He’s mostly crazy, as by that standard we wouldn’t have much reason to believe in either general relativity or the Standard Model of particle physics, since the experimental tests relevant to those theories are pretty much out of reach for the average person. But the average person should be acquainted with the broad outlines of the scientific method and empirical reasoning, at least enough so that they try to separate crackpots from respectable scientists. Because nobody ever chooses to describe themselves as a crackpot. If you ask them, they’ll always explain that they are on the side of Galileo; and if you don’t agree, you’re no better than the Inquisition.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics

The end of hope

By Daniel Holz | December 20, 2008 7:49 pm

Many scientists have been actively supporting Obama. This support stems, in part, from a feeling that any change from the past eight years can only be an improvement. But there has also been a belief that Obama fundamentally understands how science works. That he appreciates its relevance to the key issues of the day. And that he will actively solicit input from the scientific community, and that this input will appropriately inform his decisions. All of this has been primarily hypothetical, based mostly on somewhat vague statements and sound bites. Today Obama gave his weekly radio/YouTube address, and it was exclusively devoted to science and technology. In addition to Steve Chu and John Holdren, he has now added Harold Varmus and Eric Lander as co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He has assembled a scientific dream team, including two Nobel Laureates, and a host of eminent scientists with public-policy experience. A President is not expected to master the scientific issues at stake. A President’s effectiveness depends solely and crucially on their choice of appointments. These appointments are thus the first and most important scientific decision Obama will make, and he has done an extraordinary job. Of course, the next most important aspect will be whether or not Obama listens to their advice. This will be an extremely difficult group to ignore. In his weekly address Obama announces the appointments, but then articulates his concerns:

Whether it’s the science to slow global warming; the technology to protect our troops and confront bioterror and weapons of mass destruction; the research to find life-saving cures; or the innovations to remake our industries and create twenty-first century jobs—today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation.

Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as President of the United States—and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.

This is a wonderful holiday gift to the scientific community. We no longer have to hope that Obama will do the right thing. We now know he is doing the right thing.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics, Science and Politics

Science in the white house

By Daniel Holz | December 18, 2008 6:43 pm

Rumors are all over the internet that John Holdren will be nominated to be Obama’s science advisor, and in all likelihood director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Holdren is a Harvard Professor of environmental policy, as well as director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government. John HoldrenHe’s also director of the Woods Hole Research Center, and he was even chosen to give the Nobel lecture on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences. It is hard to imagine someone more qualified for the position. He has a PhD in Physics from Stanford on the stability of inhomogeneous plasmas, and has spent much of his career working on climate change and nuclear nonproliferation issues, as well as science and technology policy.

Along with Nobel Laureate Steve Chu as Department of Energy Secretary, as well as Carol Browner as Energy Czar (a newly created position), Obama is picking an absolutely fantastic group of advisors. The critical question is whether he will listen to them, and support them (both with political and economic capital) in their efforts to fix the greater scientific enterprise (as well as our planet).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics

NASA's Hissy Fit

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 11, 2008 11:35 am

Oh dear. The word from the Orlando Sentinel is that Mike Griffin is being, shall we say, less than cooperative with the Obama transition team.

NASA administrator Mike Griffin is not cooperating with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, is obstructing its efforts to get information and has told its leader that she is “not qualified” to judge his rocket program, the Orlando Sentinel has learned.

In a heated 40-minute conversation last week with Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator who heads the space transition team, a red-faced Griffin demanded to speak directly to Obama, according to witnesses.

I can only hope that this is not true, but I suspect that it is, given that the Floridian reporters have their ears very much to the ground on space policy issues.

I can understand not enjoying the process of outsiders coming into an organization you’re devoted to, and scrutinizing all the details of your work. However, as the parent of a particularly feisty four-year old, I find myself wanting to calmly tell Griffin in my best infinitely-patient-mom-voice to “make good choices”. NASA, like the country, needs the grown-ups to be in charge right now.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics

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