Monday, July 16, 2012

Weinberg's "The Crisis of Big Science"

Steven Weinberg -- probably now the Dean of American science, or at least of American physics -- had a recent essay in The New York Review of Books that I just got around to reading: "The Crisis of Big Science." It's pretty good, once you get past his descriptions of the various forces and particles. He writes:
"What really motivates elementary particle physicists is a sense of how the world is ordered—it is, they believe, a world governed by simple universal principles that we are capable of discovering. But not everyone feels the importance of this. During the debate over the SSC, I was on the Larry King radio show with a congressman who opposed it. He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities. I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was 'No.'"
He also writes that Peter Higgs perhaps got lucky that the particle that will now forever bear his name wasn't called the Brout-Englert boson (see his footnote 1). Later:
"Another problem that bedeviled the SSC was competition for funds among scientists. Working scientists in all fields generally agreed that good science would be done at the SSC, but some felt that the money would be better spent on other fields of science, such as their own. It didn’t help that the SSC was opposed by the president-elect of the American Physical Society, a solid-state physicist who thought the funds for the SSC would be better used in, say, solid-state physics. I took little pleasure from the observation that none of the funds saved by canceling the SSC went to other areas of science."
He ends with this, which is clearly heartfelt, and with which I agree completely:
"Big science is in competition for government funds, not only with manned space flight, and with various programs of real science, but also with many other things that we need government to do. We don’t spend enough on education to make becoming a teacher an attractive career choice for our best college graduates. Our passenger rail lines and Internet services look increasingly poor compared with what one finds in Europe and East Asia. We don’t have enough patent inspectors to process new patent applications without endless delays. The overcrowding and understaffing in some of our prisons amount to cruel and unusual punishment. We have a shortage of judges, so that civil suits take years to be heard.

"The Securities and Exchange Commission, moreover, doesn’t have enough staff to win cases against the corporations it is charged to regulate. There aren’t enough drug rehabilitation centers to treat addicts who want to be treated. We have fewer policemen and firemen than before September 11. Many people in America cannot count on adequate medical care. And so on. In fact, many of these other responsibilities of government have been treated worse in the present Congress than science. All these problems will become more severe if current legislation forces an 8 percent sequestration—or reduction, in effect—of nonmilitary spending after this year.

"We had better not try to defend science by attacking spending on these other needs. We would lose, and would deserve to lose. Some years ago I found myself at dinner with a member of the Appropriations Committee of the Texas House of Representatives. I was impressed when she spoke eloquently about the need to spend money to improve higher education in Texas. What professor at a state university wouldn’t want to hear that? I naively asked what new source of revenue she would propose to tap. She answered, “Oh, no, I don’t want to raise taxes. We can take the money from health care.” This is not a position we should be in.

"It seems to me that what is really needed is not more special pleading for one or another particular public good, but for all the people who care about these things to unite in restoring higher and more progressive tax rates, especially on investment income. I am not an economist, but I talk to economists, and I gather that dollar for dollar, government spending stimulates the economy more than tax cuts. It is simply a fallacy to say that we cannot afford increased government spending. But given the anti-tax mania that seems to be gripping the public, views like these are political poison. This is the real crisis, and not just for science."
Tax preferences for the wealthy are hollowing America out from the inside.

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