Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Dismissing Science, Derailing the Future

The BBC’s Harold Evans makes an but important point regarding the consequences of devaluing science and scientific education.. He begins by recalling the many scientific breakthroughs by English scientists and inventors that only achieved practical application in the US. Though post-World War II Britain still had some of the finest research institutions in the world, Evans says, they received scant attention from the British government. In the 1950’s, Evans recalls,

You would have thought that the National Physical Laboratory would be the darling of every British Government. Not so. I was invited to visit at that time because they were concerned the government did not fully appreciate that science in peace was as vital as science in war.

The researchers were doing what they could on a tiny budget and even that was about to be cut. Not just in the government, but in business and society, there was a general indifference to science and scientific education that seems odd today.

The consequence of that inertia in government and lethargy in business was that the US came to dominate the computer industry, despite all the brilliant work of Turing at Manchester University and others at Ferranti.

Evans then compares Britain’s past experience to the current political and cultural climate in America, pointing to escalating concern among American scientists over Washington’s general disinterest in, and occasionally open hostility to, science. President Bush recently highlighted the scientific ignorance that plagues the American political class with an inane remark that "Intelligence Design (ID)," re-branded creationist pseudoscience, should be taught alongside evolutionary theory in US high school courses. The president’s remark caused a self-satisfied flurry among religious ultra-conservatives who consider evolution to be a cultural poison on par with Nazism or Communism, and will doubtless feature prominently in PR releases from the Discovery Institute, "ID’s" well funded advocacy group. Unfortunately, it will also give succor to the grassroots conservatives actively pushing to put ID in American classrooms.

Of course, not all conservatives in the US disbelieve in evolution. In fact, many right-of-center intellectuals, including such luminaries as Charles Murray, Larry Arnhart , and Steve Sailer, among others, understand that evolutionary science and the light it sheds on human behavior, can greatly contribute to public policy debates. Nor is anti-evolutionary, anti-scientific thought confined to the right. For decades the Left has sought – with minimal academic success, but some cultural reverberation – to undermine the intellectual foundations of science by impugning the idea that objective facts exists independent of cultural, gender, class and racial biases. Moreover, the Left has been at the forefront of deprecating science as a tool of Western (read: white) oppression of non-Western peoples. As part of its general assault on the moral and intellectual integrity Western Civilization, leftists have assailed science and attempted with some success to tarnish its popular reputation.

Amid this intellectual assault, most Americans seem to have lost interest in science. The technology derived from science retains its appeal among gadget-happy Americans, but the desire to pursue science in depth, and especially as a career has been waning amongst Americans for decades. The hard sciences are considered too difficult by most US college students and the salaries commanded by researchers too meager to attract sufficient numbers of students. Worse, the one area of the federal budget that hasn’t ballooned under President Bush is funding for basic scientific research.

The question now tormenting Americans - who don't have a natural aptitude for worry - is whether the same writing is on the wall for them. Vinton Cerf is one who thinks it is, and he is no ordinary hand-wringer.

He's the mathematician who is often referred to as the "father of the internet". From 1972 to 1986, he was one of the key people in the US Defense Department who made it possible for distant and different computers to exchange packets of information - and that's the foundation of the internet on top of which rides the world wide web today.

Nothing daunted, he is now working on the protocols for planet to planet communication. In short, he knows whereof he speaks. And Cerf has just emitted a cry of pain.

The Bush administration does not take kindly to anyone who has drawn a federal dollar being critical - and being critical moreover in the businessman's' bible, the Wall street Journal.

So it is brave of Cerf to risk future disfavour and inveigh against "the stewards of our national destiny" for cutting money from key areas of research in its 2006 budget. That's a recipe, says Cerf, for "irrelevance and decline."

The president's science adviser, John Marburger, concedes that the budget is "pretty close to flat" but stoutly maintains "we are not going backwards", pointing to an extra $733 million for research and development (R&D) funding.

In fact, this is the first time in a decade that federal funding has failed to keep pace with inflation. And in the entrails of the complex budget - no one should go there alone - you find there is indeed less money in real terms for what's called basic research and less for Cerf's area of particular concern, computer science.

Funding university research for that has been falling through the first Bush term and is now about half what it was in 2001.

The falloff in federal spending heralds a larger trend. Evans explains that the US has now fallen to sixth place among other nations in terms of the percentage of national wealth spent on R&D. Much of this reflects a general rise in global wealth and improving education worldwide, and has little to do with US public policy. Nonetheless, Evans sees a trend which should disturb Americans.

So what is there to worry about? Well, there are some facts Americans find hard to swallow after decades of striding the frontiers of science. Fewer of the Nobel prizes go to American scientists, down to about half from a peak in the 90s. Papers from Americans occupied 61% of published research in 1983, now the total is just under 29%.

It may not get better soon since a higher proportion of young Americans are opting for better paid law and medicine over science and engineering and visa restrictions on bright foreign students further dilute the talent pool. "The rest of the world is catching up," says John E. Jankowski, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation.

Anyone who cares to poke their head into a graduate-level physical sciences classroom at an American university these days will be startled by the number of non-Americans filling the seats. Visitors to American hospitals will experience a similar surprise at the number of foreign born doctors – particularly Indians and Asians - now on staff. Simply put, the US isn’t producing enough scientists and researchers to sustain its economic leadership. Indeed, the US has already ceded a large number of high-tech industries to foreign competitors. US government policy has only contributed to this. Ideological hostility to biotechnology among the political elite in the US – manifested in the embryonic stem cell debate – has allowed other nations, particularly Britain and Korea to advertise their biotech-friendly policies, attracting companies and researchers and allowing them to catch up with the US in many areas of biotech research.

The failure to produce enough native-born American scientists puts continued US economic supremacy into question and raises doubts about long term American military dominance as well. Instead of flooding the US with work-for-nothing foreigners and advocating for pseudo-science, President Bush might want to consider creating policies that actually encourage American students to dedicate themselves to the difficult task of becoming scientists and doctors. The future really does depend on it.

2 Comments:

At 10:36 AM , Anonymous Larry Arnhart said...

Many American conservatives fail to see that far from being their enemy, Charles Darwin is their friend.

Conservatism rests on a realist view of human nature as imperfectible. Leftist thought rests on a utopian view of human nature as perfectible. Darwinian science supports the conservative view by showing how the imperfectiblity of human nature was shaped by evolutionary history.

In my new book DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM, I argue that the intellectual vitality of conservative social thought in the 21st century will depend on whether conservatives can adopt the insights of Darwinian science.

Bush and other conservatives fear Darwinism--and modern science generally--because they think it promotes an atheistic materialism that is morally and politically corrupting. But, in fact, Darwin's science is neither atheistic nor immoral.

Although Darwinism cannot deny or affirm the theological claims of religion, Darwinism can accept the practical morality of religious teaching insofar as that morality conforms to the natural "moral sense" that Darwin believed to be innate in human nature.

All the major principles of conservative thought--such as the importance of traditional family life, private property, and limited government--can all be defended on Darwinian grounds. That's why I have argued in my new book that conservatives need Charles Darwin.

 
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