Thursday, February 7, 2008

Science and the future of America

In the city of Natal, in northeast Brazil there is something unique going on.

In 2003, a group of Brazilian scientists, backed by the government and several universities and inspired by the great Brazilian inventor and aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont (the first man to fly a powered, controllable airship), established the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal. The ELS-IINN was built around a simple concept, use state of the art science to affect the social and economic transformation of one of the least developed regions in the world.

No, they're not doing some kind of bizarre third-world experiment on the peasant children - far from it. What they've done is establish a first-rate science education curriculum that so far has grown to include over a thousand children in the poorest, and most poorly performing, education district in South America. Their goal is to enroll at least one million children, nationwide, in the most comprehensive science and technology education program in Brazilian history.

Twenty-five years ago, Brazil was a military dictatorship. Today, it's a fast growing and vibrant democracy - 80 million people vote in every election. And they are rapidly becoming a world leader in food production and biofuel research and development. It's not perfect, and most Brazilians would tell you that: around the edge of this new found prosperity there are many poor and disenfranchised. And that's what the ELS-IINN is all about. Instead of welfare, or ineffective short-term and short-sighted quick-fixes, Brazil has chosen a long-term, permanent solution - education, based on a foundation of solid, cutting edge science. And it's working, the progress is slow but steady, and, once established, self sustaining and self-starting. The ELS-IINN is giving their children the tools to dig themselves out of poverty and to harness the creativity and innovation that comes from a solid education. Brazil is building it's own future, down there in the jungle, and it's a good one.

Which brings us back to the United States.

Soon, very soon, we as a nation are going to have to deal with some very thorny issues: adapting to a changing climate (which will have far ranging impacts in every facet of our society), finding alternate sources of affordable and sustainable energy, maintain an edge in science and technology (which is critical to our position in the world), building an infrastructure of sustainable food production in an era of declining ocean stocks and arable land, and the list goes on and on. As Brazil has realized, the solutions to the these problems are completely surmountable. Humans are problem solvers, it's what we excel at. When the problems are simple and resources abundant, sloppy thinking and pseudo-science might see you through, or at least see enough of you through to make it seem as if things are working. But in the long run, a poor understanding of how the world actually works will lead to either a gradual decay or sudden collapse. History is rife with examples, from the Mayans to the Roman and British Empires to the Soviet Union.

It is imperative that the future leaders of this country understand this. We cannot afford yet another President who is ill-informed, dismissive, or deluded regarding the role of science and education. During the 2004 presidential elections, there was an abortive bid to stage a 'town-hall' type discussion on this exact subject with the candidates. It didn't happen. This time things aren't much better, last May three of the Republican candidates went on record as disbelieving in the theory of evolution (in fact, at least one is a Young Earth Creationist), several candidates have made statements dismissing a human-role in global climate change despite solid multidisciplinary science to the contrary, and both sides have yet to propose a realistic and doable policy for redesigning our energy infrastructure.

Two months ago, a grassroots, bipartisan movement of concerned citizens established Science Debate 2008 and issued a call for a debate that would focus solely on science. Forcing the candidates to discuss, openly and in public, their views on the environment, health and medicine, and science and technology policy. Science Debate 2008 is made up of many people, including twelve Nobel laureates, scientists from many disciplines, former presidential science advisers, sitting congressional representatives, and business leaders. I highly encourage you all to get involved and you can learn more here: www.sciencedebate2008.com.


  1. Jim – a couple of thoughts on this issue. I’m going to dig up a couple of old posts from TP With Page Numbers and repost them on Refugees on just this topic.

    While I like the idea of a science debate in principle, and in practice it might have some real teeth this year over the stem cell and cloning issues, usually it turns into a typical special interest lobby group whinge. The candidate that the AAAS usually endorses is the one who promises the most money. There is almost never any reflection on how the money should be used. More is always better.

    Take, for example, this post. My response to that post is, quite frankly, science needs to prioritize funding. The superconducting supercollider was going to suck billons of dollars (keep in mind that the entire budget of the NSF is only about $4 billion". High Energy Physics is not going to yield anything useful in the way of technology in the near or medium terms, so spending that much on them to put 500 names on a paper that basically says “hey, we might have found a new flavor of quark is insane. Let the Euros waste their dollars on that crap rather than funding the medical and nanotechnology that will reshape our world in the next 50 years. It only makes them less competitive. Yet the AAAS pisses and moans about losing out to the EU supercollider.

    What I want to hear out of the candidates is how they are going to prioritize research. The next thing I want to hear is how they are going to solve the pyramid scheme that is the modern university system. Professors graduate many more Ph.D.s than there are Ph.D. jobs. A professor does almost no work in the lab after his or her first promotion. That means that a successful one needs 3 – 4 post doctoral researchers and roughly 10 – 20 graduate students working under them. That prof is likely a boomer with 10 – 20 more years of tenure. That boomer also hangs on to each grad student for an average of two years longer than he or she spent as a grad student – which sucks right there, But it gets worse.

    Just where are those graduate students going to go when they graduate? I’ll tell you. They will do two or even three post docs where the boomer only did one. They might end up and adjunct with no job security. They might get really lucky and score a faculty position. But now you see MIT and Harvard grads competing for jobs at little colleges out in BFE Kentucky, so good luck with that. What’s left? Industry, if they majored in the right subject, or leave science altogether. Since about 90% of the industry jobs are synthetic chemistry in the pharma and plastics segments, good luck with an industry position if you are in the 60% of grad students in Analytical, Inorganic or P-Chem. My career is a typical response to that situation: I got an MBA and got the hell out of the lab. If a young person is to ask me what to do career-wise, I’d say get an Engineering degree, work a few years, and get an MBA.

  2. John, that's an interesting take on the situation.

    The career path you list is basically the one I took, although most of my skills come from practical job training rather than a University. Based on what you've said here and elsewhere, I think I made the right choice.

  3. John, I'd have liked to have gotten back to you on this yesterday - but the connection was down. Maybe we need a few post docs in the IT business.

    I concur with your assessment.

    And I'd like to see, as you said, the candidate's exact position on science policy. No flim flam or evasive statements - tell me exactly what you think. I'm not sure a debate is the right forum for that, I'd like to see what basically would amount to a job interview. I.e. state your position on stem cell research, cloning, creationism, global climate change, and etc in detail. Provide references to back up your statements. If you have no experience or education in a particular area, what would you base your decisions on? Why? Who do you have in mind for a science adviser? Why? What is his/her credentials. And etc.

  4. My wife got stuck in the Adjunct cycle. Professors that would swear up and down that they aren't prejudice have no problem sticking people in Adjunct and then holding them there because once an Adjunct, always an Adjunct. We didn't know that when she took the first position, we thought it would be a leg up into a full-time or tenured position (like an extended try-out). But once you go that way, no matter how good you do, you have a snowball's chance in hell of getting out of it. Some do, but then some slaves also bought their way out as well. And yeah, I do equate the two.

    Candidates won't prioritize spending because that's now what they do. I'll just be happy if we get of this treadmill of "Oh, the scientific research contradicts what we have a firm belief in (and our backers support), well, we need more research and another four reports (2 years each) before we bury the subject once and for all."


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