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.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Homeland Security Charade

The Bush administration continues to use "war on terrorism" rhetoric to justify its ever-more costly nation-building efforts in Iraq, but can't be bothered to even make a good pretense of it along the US-Mexico border.
In a storefront courthouse in the baking-hot Rio Grande Valley, next to a ''beauty academy' and across from a sleepy coffee shop, US Immigration Judge David Ayala is a study in effortless efficiency. He pulls blue files one by one from a tall stack, announces the name of an undocumented immigrant caught slipping across the US border, and orders the defendant deported.

There are no cries of protest. The defendants are nowhere to be found. Other than the thwack of a stamp and the judge's voice, the only other sound in the tiny courtroom is the quiet hum of an air conditioner, as Ayala goes through the motions before a Department of Homeland Security prosecutor and a reporter.

Unlike undocumented Mexicans, most of whom are quickly returned to their country after they are arrested, almost all non-Mexicans are charged and released in the United States if they do not have a criminal record and are not deemed a security threat. But like this day, few of the immigrants show up to face charges that they entered the country illegally.

When their names are called, 98 percent of all undocumented aliens ordered to appear at Harlingen Immigration Court do not answer. They are weeks into their new lives in all corners of the United States.

The no-show rate, the highest of those for all 53 immigration courts in the country, has deteriorated as undocumented, non-Mexican immigrants have been crossing the border in exponentially increasing numbers, many from known terrorist breeding grounds such as Pakistan.
Mexicans entering the US may be imperiling American culture identity and erroding the working class by driving wages down, but significant numbers of Arabs and Pakistanis have expressed a outright desire to kill Americans in large numbers and physically destroy the US itself. On September 11, 2001, nineteen Muslim Arabs proved that they had the means and willingness to accomplish at least the former goal. It is inconcievable that the US in the wake of such an attack would fail to secure its borders - but that is exactly what the Bush administration had done, deliberately. Nor is Washington unaware of the danger...
High-ranking federal officials, including retired Admiral James Loy of the Coast Guard, who served as deputy secretary of Homeland Security until March, have warned Congress that terrorists might exploit the porous border with Mexico to enter the United States, where they can take their chances with immigration officials who often have no choice but to release non-Mexicans.

Such infiltration ''is a concern for us,' said Roy Cervantes, the US Border Patrol spokesman in Harlingen.
Despite this,
Nationwide, the number of non-Mexicans who are entering the country illegally is skyrocketing, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Through Aug. 9, for the first 10 months of fiscal 2005, a total of 135,097 non-Mexicans had been apprehended out of 1.02 million undocumented immigrants arrested overall. In all of fiscal 2004, the number of non-Mexicans apprehended was 75,392; in fiscal 2003, the figure was 49,545.

The arrivals are coming from all over the globe, using smugglers in Mexico and the United States to ferry them to river crossings and to guide them along dangerous desert trails in their quest for a better life. The inability of the Border Patrol to stem the tide has provoked a fierce debate about immigration policy and security priorities. The governors of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, and of Arizona, Janet Napolitano, both Democrats, declared states of emergency along their southern borders this month.
Bush's big business cronies enjoy the benefits of illegal aliens - namely, the collapse of US wages, since it means they have to pay workers in the US so much less. Illegal aliens have driven wages down everywhere except at the CEO's office, where compensation perks continue to accumulate.

Of course, the usual racial racketeers advance the cry that any attention to border control issues has darker motives.
Other observers, such as the executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Brent Wilkes, suggest that the outcry against the growing influx of non-Mexican immigrants, many of them from Central and South America, is rooted in racial bias.

''We get concerned when we feel like the security issue is used as a ruse to crack down on Hispanic immigrants who are economic refugees,' Wilkes said. ''There's a lot of people playing up the threat of terrorists coming across the Mexican border.'
Note that Mr. Wilkes own agenda might be argued as an example of racial bias. Many Latinos perceive it in their racial interest to permit as many of their race into the US as possible so as to dilute the white majority and increase their cultural and political clout. That, too, can be described as a racist agenda, especially when it puts the safety of the entire US population - regardless of racial makeup - at risk of another major terror attack.

Meanwhile, the lunacy at the border continues...
Nowhere are those decisions more evident than in Harlingen. In the first nine months of fiscal 2005, which ends on Sept. 30, 16,376 undocumented immigrants failed to appear at court. Only 214 of them were Mexican. In fiscal 2004, 9,166 immigrants did not appear, or 88 percent. In fiscal 2003, the no-show number was 4,868, again a national high at 88 percent.

In the sprawling Rio Grande sector, which includes Harlingen and covers 320 miles of the river, 68,438 non-Mexican immigrants from 65 countries have been arrested this fiscal year, Cervantes said. That number amounts to much more than double the 26,437 non-Mexican immigrants who had crossed illegally into this sector for all of fiscal 2004.
The situation in Harlingen brings the issue into stark focus. Either the Bush administration does really believe that the US is facing a serious terrorist threat, and so it doesn't matter who comes into the country (from a security perspective), in which case the "war on terrorism" is a PR scam. Or the Bush administration does believe the US is under dire threat, but is willing to mortgage American lives in order to win more Latino votes. Either possibility is revolting, and one, quite possibly, is treason. Should another major attack occur on American soil, and it can be confirmed that the attackers gained access to the US across a poorly-protectec border, the president and his operatives should face criminal charges for their malfeasance.