Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Science, communication, and the public

This week's issue of Nature includes an interesting editorial emphasizing how crucial it is that scientists and engineers learn how to communicate their value to the general populace.  This is something I've thought about for quite some time, as have a number of other people - see this article in Physics Today (subscription only, I'm afraid), this related blog post, and a discussion in the Houston Chronicle's science blog

It's hard not to get down about this whole topic.  Industrial R&D funding (for projects with more than a year lead time) is a shadow of what it used to be, and looming fiscal austerity may well cripple federally funded basic research.  If companies aren't willing to invest for the long term, and government is unable or unwilling to invest for the long term, then technological innovation may shift away from the US.  If more of the general public and politicians appreciated that things like the iPad, XBox, the internet, and flat screen TVs didn't come out of nowhere, maybe the situation would be different. 

By the way, I find it interesting that the Nature editorial discusses looming cuts to Texas physics departments, a topic I mentioned here and was discussed in the New York Times, and yet our own Houston Chronicle hasn't bothered to write about them.  At all.  Even on their online science blog.  Yes, they're aware of the topic, too.  Clearly they've had more newsworthy things to worry about.


Anonymous said...

While the US consumer has clearly benefited from the products of federally funded basic research, it is not at all clear that the US economy has, in terms of jobs created.

Douglas Natelson said...

Really? You realize that the Internet started as federally funded research, right?
See here:

Basic research leads to long term innovation overall, oratleast it has historically. If it is not funded by industry and not funded by government, then we are going to face a lack of innovation. It is hard for metro believe that that OSA good thing.

Douglas Natelson said...

If you want another citation,

J said...

I know you worry about this, which is part of why I voted for you in the DCMP elections.

Anonymous said...

The trajectories of US job creation and federally funded research have diverged in the last fifteen years or so. Lets recap :
1. Massive research investment in the semiconductor industry - majority of US semiconductor companies are fabless and job intensive fabs have relocated to China, Taiwan and Korea
2. Software industry - jobs have relocated to India, Israel, Eastern Europe, ireland, etc.
3. Massive continuing research in solar - all solar manufacturing is in China now
One can go on and on ..

Massimo said...


I am afraid that the argument "we need more investments in research because that is how we get bigger and better toasters" may have worked in the past, and may even work today in the short term, but is ultimately going to harm science (no, not because jobs are eventually moved to China, that is just nonsense).

If you try getting money by promising gadgets, when the gadgets do not materialize people get angry, and the repercussions are long term.
This is how high-Tc was killed ("where are those levitating trains you told us about ?"), and this is why experimental high energy physics is such a tough sell these days. I think that, even though it is clearly much more difficult, we need people to understand that science (both research and education) is a crucial component of societal progress, and its impact goes far beyond B&BTs -- methinks, anyway.

Douglas Natelson said...

Massimo - I understand your point, but the honest fact is that historically, basic research in the physical sciences has been a good bet for society in term so of eventual technological improvements. High Tc got "killed" (comparatively) because no one has solved the problem after n years (now 25), not because someone promised maglev trains. I'm pretty sure that telling the public, "Science is important for cultural progress, but probably won't be useful even in the long term" is not a winning strategy for anyone, and I bet you'd agree.

Anon@11:16 - So, is your position that we should give up, then? Because even when we do end up developing good technologies US manufacturing jobs can be off-shored to countries with cheaper labor and government-subsidized manufacturing? I don't accept that - I don't accept the idea that we should stop trying to innovate because it's a fool's errand.

J - thanks! I've never run for a professional society office before. We'll see what happens.

Anonymous said...

We should not give up of course. I dont know what the solution is but I know we cant subsidize the world's research forever and get little for it with a 15 % unemployment rate. Perhaps the solution is Smoot-Hawley. Perhaps it is for research to be more industry oriented and more industry-led. After all, for-profit corporations do a much better job safeguarding precious IP and also realizing its commercial value. That said, giving billions to NSF is still much better than giving trillions to the banks.

Massimo said...

High Tc got "killed" (comparatively) because no one has solved the problem after n years (now 25)

It is not the only problem that has not been solved for a long time. One could argue that quantum computing has been around for at least as long (arguably longer) and it is still enjoying a reasonable degree of funding. The notion that one should stop funding research in a specific area because the problem is not solved seems questionable to me.

"Science is important for cultural progress, but probably won't be useful even in the long term"

No, but I would never say this. It will surely useful, in both the long and short term.
I just don't think that one should try to impress politicians and taxpayers by the bits of quantifying the impact of basic research in terms of new gadgets.
Greater emphasis should be placed on the training of a highly qualified workforce, and on the technological and business spinoffs, which seem to correlate reasonably well with that kind of investment, even though of course, one cannot predict when and how the payoff will come (it may not even be related to what the subject of the research is, as in your example of the internet).

Is it an accident that the states which have traditionally enjoyed a stronger hi-tech based economy and higher standards of living, are also those in which the best universities can be found ?
Is it crazy of emergent economies such as China invest heavily in basic research ?
I don't think that this is an impossible sell.

Anonymous said...

The era of US preeminence in science is coming to an end. In the coming decades, science itself will move to China, Korea and India. By this I mean the percentage total worldwide basic science funding.

It was a good run, but I don't see a reason to try and claw back something that's not going to return, Doug. Tell your students to move to Korea or Japan.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon@3:21, I think we're talking at cross purposes. Clearly, all other things being equal, I'd expect China and India to each be producing four times as much science/engineering as the US, since they each have about 4x the population.

I'm not trying to claw back US predominance, and I didn't say I was. I'm saying that if the US is to compete and be innovative, period, investment in research is needed. Making a conscious decision not to invest in research either publicly or privately is not a recipe for economic success, period.

Grand theft auto v said...

well thx. good one

Anonymous said...

Actually the Physics Today article is free.