Friday, April 06, 2012

Looming Crisis For US Physics

We have heard this many times, and at some point, it's hard not to say "So what else is new?"

This report in an excerpt of the panel discussion during the last APS Meeting among prominent physicists. It highlights the fact that there is a clear perception that the US is losing grounds on discoveries and advancement in physics with the shift going to other countries. The major culprit here is the continually dismal funding of science, and physics in particular.

"We need to redouble our efforts to make sure the projects we select are of the highest importance and impact, and be on the lookout for new technologies and innovations that would allow us to do more of our science goals with more modest resources," said Timothy Hallman, associate director of science for nuclear physics at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Jim Siegrist, director of the Office of High Energy Physics in DOE's Office of Science, agreed. "We need to find a way to do more science with a fixed amount of money," Siegrist said.

"I think it'd be easier just to have more money," Wilczek replied.

He argued that society doesn't adequately value and recognize the economic benefits of basic science.
"Think about how much the invention of the transistor is worth," Wilczek said."The fundamental science that went into that was understanding quantum mechanics, understanding the micro world. Bohr didn't get rich from it, Heisenberg didn't get rich from it. But society got rich from it." (Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were two of the pioneers of quantum mechanics.)
I've mentioned this earlier that I wouldn't be surprised that 100 years from now, if the US no longer is a major economic power, historian might look at this time period of the past 10 years as the turning point and the start of the decline of the US civilization. Every civilization in our history went through such golden period and then the decline. Some even completely perished. Are we beginning to see eventual fate of the US? When a nation no longer supports what has admittedly been the major source and driving force of innovations that had sustained and grew the economy,  then it is a sign of the beginning of the downfall.



Andrej said...

Belt tightening and "stringent criteria" for project funding will certainly fuel tribalism and other dishonorable survival responses in scientists --- sadly, since scientists are the ones who should have the opportunity to void themselves of all those petty human motives. That's quite depressing to me, but no way around it. However, in the short-term, the cut-throat competition should (overall) rise the quality of published science, so if the political/financial situation is overturned in the next decade, there's hope that this entire attack on science will (overall) just remain a benign experiment in (perceived) time of need. Of course, I say 'perceived', because a single US billionaire could cover the entire US science budget cuts for some years without problem, if he (she?) wanted to. Alternatively, a dozen F-22 raptors of the US Army could do the same (there are hundreds of those).

Generally, I almost feel sorry for the US. It had a chance of being a relatively benign empire where the essential libertarianism brings out the best (and consequently the worst of course) out of humans. It however seems inevitable from the lessons of the past century that the petty greed of human beings (Americans in this special case), their sickening over-consumption (when allowed) and plain dumbing-down effects, are just too overbearing, and the 'ship is sinking'.

There might be hope, e.g. in the recent example when the masses rose against the SOPA act. I am however cynical enough (having grown up in one of those places where the US empire "benevolently" took what it wanted) to be able to strongly believe that the human race (overall) is just, sadly, too close to poo-flinging monkeys, and we shouldn't expect too much.

For the next century, I foresee a recycled, distorted, quasi-Enlightenment era, where supposedly smart and engineer-minded Chinese "Comm-party overlords" tightly control masses while building their empire. They might be less kin on "spreading freedom with guns", less interested into controlling the planet, but instead might be more openly cruel to their own people. I'm more OK with that, I guess.

On an optimistic note, at least learning Chinese-styled scripts develops childrens' cognitive abilities (due to strong association and abstraction demands) much better than other scripts do, and hopefully our great-grand-children can be saved from the horrific spelling challenges of the English language :-)

Fidustek said...

You're still lucky. In Spain, our Govt. has just decided a 34% cut in Science and Investigation budget. King's House and Catholic Church have received no cuts at all. Bad times for science in Spain...

Jason Nett said...

@Andrej: Defending ones own career--especially one like physics which has contributed so much to the world over the past few centuries while we get fear and suspicion in return--is hardly a "petty human motive." I'm very happy with my progress as a physics postdoc and would ostensibly like to stay in the field for the sake of furthering it, but because of this direction I am planning to leave for one where I could realistically make a living for myself. Further, "cut-throat competition" does not necessarily improve quality of work. Quite the opposite, I've seen it contribute more to hasty and uncreative work just for the sake of "finishing" first. Good science and scholarship needs time explore ideas that will eventually fail, but ultimately lead to brilliant breakthroughs.

Andrej said...

@Jason Nett: Indeed, I think we agree. The "pettiness" I was mentioning wasn't about fighting for physics, it was about tribalism within physics (or a field within it). What I meant is that sometimes mediocre and bombastic endeavors pursued by the many, when the many feel threatened, consolidate and push out the small and brilliant enedeavors. This happens a lot at the level of anonymous referees for medium/high-level scientific journals.

Also, like you, I am sceptical of the gladiator approach to grooming excellence. However, some level of competition is necessarry in that regard, so I was just expressing my hope that we haven't stooped to the lowest gladiator levels yet, and there is decent hope if the trend is slowly reversed in the next years.

Actually, some European countries are, I feel, far worse than the US. Check out the Netherlands, one of the most serious players (up to now). They closed astrophysics department at the best university, and their long-term vision now is "innovation driven research". That means green energy, nano-electronics, and the like (as if the entire country's science should cater companies like Phillips), and a big 'no-no' to curiosity-driven research. That is sickening and short-sighted, but I guess in sync with the current Western European Zeitgeist of panic-induced political right-wing extremism. Prominent people are trying to fight against it, but you know how it is, the blind fear-mongers are the ones with the most testosterone, and the masses react to guts, not brains.

I hope you will be happy at your new carrer, if you really leave physics. I am still not sure I could be, therefore I will linger another couple of years.

A question for you and all others who care: Some of the most productive and prodigious generations on this planet have been raised in hardship --- so don't you think that raising your kids poor, while being fulfilled and happy with your job, is a better strategy than chasing money for their iPads, while you're grumpy, unmotivated and still overworked? Can you recommend bussiness jobs (Google??) where that is not the case? :-) I've heard many uninspiring stories about R&D, consultancy, etc...