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October 13, 2005

THERE'S A NEW REPORT OUT FROM THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES warning that the U.S. position in science is eroding. Over at Slashdot most of the commenters seem to be taking the Chris Mooney position, but as I've noted before I think that's a bit simplistic. Here's some interesting perspective from fertility expert James Grifo in Discover magazine:

Given todayís political climate, what do you think will happen in the field of reproductive medicine?

G: Well, let me put it this way. If the environment today existed when IVF was started in 1978, we never would have had IVF. In the first two pregnancies with IVF, one was ectopic and one was a miscarriage. Our government would have stopped us right there. But IVF has resulted in a technology that is mainstream. Like IVF, the technologies weíre working on now are to help people with serious medical problemsónot to create Frankensteins.

Would science be better off with Democrats in the White House?

G: I donít know. I just donít know. Democrats think youíre not smart enough to make your own decisions. They think they need to protect you from evil scientists. They will regulate everything that could possibly happen. Republicans, on the other hand, think regulation isnít good, except when it comes to decisions people make in their bedrooms. Then itís absolutely required.

The fact is that neither party is especially great on science. On the other hand, the "erosion" in the U.S. position is to some degree a reflection on improved capabilities elsewhere, which given that science is a positive-sum game is probably a good thing.

At any rate, while we're certainly not going to improve our scientific position by teaching Intelligent Design in high schools, I don't think that's the source of our problems. We should probably look more closely at what's happening in higher education, and in particular what's happening in science and engineering education. I love science and engineering, and my friends from high school who went into those fields think I would have been good there. I don't know if they're right, but I'm pretty sure that I've had a better career in law. And much as I love law and lawyers, I suspect that a country that makes law a more rewarding career than science and engineering is likely to wind up with more and better lawyers than it has scientists and engineeers.

UPDATE: Reader Sabrina Chase emails:

I can confirm your suspicion -- more US scientists would be available if they could find work. I have a PhD in experimental physics, did some of the early research on C60 (buckyballs) as a grad student and postdoc, and I could not find a *bad* permanent job, let alone a good one. I don't think my colleagues have exorbitant salary demands (unlike lawyers -- sorry, couldn't resist!) but the positions simply weren't there. My graduate education was partially financed by taxpayers, too, and it irks me that they are not getting much return on their investment. I'm working in the software industry now, which has better hours, better pay, and a much reduced risk of getting irradiated or electrocuted, but I wish I had had the opportunity to keep doing the fundamental research I loved.

If the jobs were better, and the education process less miserable, we'd have more scientists. And if we had less risk-aversion, litigation, and regulation, we'd have more research.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Scientist-reader Walker White emails that people are missing the real story, which is more about management than ideology:

I noticed that you posted on the article about our "eroding position in science" and a link to the Slashdot discussion. As a practicing scientist, I thought I would bring your attention to the one feature about that discussion that is not getting any attention right now: the grant situation (indeed, Chris Mooney specifically says he did not consider it important in his book, though it is the topic of most concern to us scientists).

There has been quite a bit of press on the cuts in the NSF after an initial increase in 2002.

However, the real issue has been the change in focus of the NSF under this administration. Not anti-science, but anti-foundational science. In its submissions, the NSF is now requiring that the results of the research have some form of application in the short term. The NSF was supposed to be different from organizational grants, like DOD or NIH, in that it could support foundational research -- the type that will not economically pay off for years or even decades.

There is a strong argument that the unique level of support the U.S. gave to foundational research is what made us such a world-wide leader. For example, engineering research at European universities has historically been funded by businesses. They worked on specific, classified projects and the results were not published or otherwise shared with other researchers. The graduate students had no way of proving their worth to the research community and had a hard time getting academic jobs. The openness of our research community attracted many overseas students here, and the best remained to become faculty; the dearth of funding opportunities with the universities in their home countries made their job prospects limited. With the rise of the EU, Europeans now have in place a central body with a lot of capital that can distribute grant money to encourage quality, publicly-available research. Asia is also now developing similar programs.

As a result, academic positions in other countries are becoming competitive with the U.S. And as other countries increase funding, we are continuing to cut back. I understand small government, but I have worked with business enough to know that -- unless they are doing it for philanthropic reasons -- they will not fund science that does not have immediate or short term applications. Only government or noncompetitive monopolies (like the original Bell labs) have ever funded foundational research (Microsoft's recent competition from Google has forced them to retool their R&D division to make it more short term). And considering your job, you should know that university fees and tuition won't cover the necessary expense. This is one area where government can make a unique contribution.

There is no reason to make the NSF focus on the short-term. We have organizations like DOD or NIH to support research in specific applied areas. In addition, this is exactly the type of research that industry will fund. The NSF served a unique position in this country and that is being lost right now.

Excellent criticism, and something worthy of more attention, though harder to fit into a political pigeonhole.

MORE: Reader Jim Hu emails:

I read your post on the crisis in science and I will probably post to my own blog about it at some point after I take a look at the report. However, I felt I should respond to part of the update right away. As someone who has been on the receiving and reviewing end of both NIH and NSF grants, I don't think reader Walker White has it quite right. First, it's simply not true that "In its submissions, the NSF is now requiring that the results of the research have some form of application in the short term. "

In addition, while there are management issues with how science is funded at NSF and elsewhere in our Federal research portfolio (for example, see http://www.wi.mit.edu/news/archives/2004/cpa_1104b.html for some controversy regarding NIH and biodefense) , I don't think that anything specific to this administration is at the root of any problems I have with now NSF distributes its funds to scientists.

Interesting. And though I've mentioned it before, be sure to read this column by Virginia Postrel on "criminalizing science."

MUCH LATER UPDATE: But see this critique of the NAS study, from Carl Bialik of the Wall Street Journal.