Posted tagged ‘Apollo’

More on the fate of science under Bush (and McCain?…)

May 9, 2008

See this comment from Kevin on the Daily Kos thread responding to the McCain/science post below.

Kevin wrote:

Thoughts from a Cancer Biology graduate student (8+ / 0-)

I’m new to the site, but I just thought i’d throw my two cents in here. I’m finishing up my PhD in Molecular Cancer Biology at Duke University and I hope to give you some insight as to how bad things are getting in the scientific community. When i first entered graduate school in 2002, nearly 25 percent of all new grants were being funded by the NIH. Now, slightly more than 10 percent are. This has led to limited job opportunities for graduating students, a smaller group of professors holding a larger piece of the NIH pie (fewer new ideas and perspectives on complex and longstanding problems), and will surely have long lasting consequences on the ability to recruit new brilliant minds as the job market continues to decline.

I urge all to speak to your congressmen, and speak up about a problem many will talk about and few will actually do anything for. You can also find out more information at the American Association for the Advancement of Science website http://www.AAAS.org.

Technology is at the heart of almost all new invention. At a time when we need great thinkers to solve problems inherent in the U.S. and clearly the rest of the world (i.e. global warming, petroleum dependency, health sciences research and yes, even our countries defense capabilities) the Bush administration has taken away funding and slowed the progress that we’ve been moving towards in all these areas. Unless steps are taken soon, our ability to solve these problems will be greatly compromised in order to pay for a war we dont need, and tax cuts we cant afford.

Pay close attention to the key number in Kevin’s post: there has been a nearly 60% drop in grants funded by the NIH over the education of one graduate student. Similar cutbacks are occuring at other major science and engineering funding agencies.

Everything Kevin says about the consequences of such a decline is true: fewer grad students; fewer jobs for newly graduated researchers (not to be confused with graduated beakers); shrinking incentives for technically or mathematically skilled undergraduates to consider science or engineering basic research as a career, and so on.

The larger consequences follow on with shocking speed. It takes a long time — decades — to build up a research infrastructure. Labs, space, machines — but above all people who have ideas and time and room enough to pursue ideas that don’t work out (most of them) and the few that do. (Take a look at this NOVA program about Judah Folkman for the virtues of persistence and the absolute necessity of an ongoing flow of grad student and post doc money to produce important results.)

As Kevin argues, it takes much less time — years, maybe a decade, to unravel the technical capacity to do research. To take an example from the engineering side of things. As late as 1973, with the launch of Skylab, the United States possessed the ability to lift large payloads into orbit, and to carry manned missions as far as the moon, all using one of the true monuments of 20th century technology, the Saturn V rocket. That was the moon rocket’s last flight. Within a few years, though much of the infrastructure of the moon missions remained, the core manufacturing capacity to build more such rockets was lost.

The consequence: Skylab was designed to remain safely in orbit until 1981, two years past the scheduled debut of the Space Shuttle, which would be deployed to dock with America’s space station (yup, we had one thirty five years ago), and move the facility to a higher orbit.

Then Skylab’s parking orbit deteriorated early, in 1979. The shuttles, behind schedule, were unavailable. The last Saturn Vs had already long since been mothballed and placed, in some cases, on museum display. The production line had been shut down for almost a decade. A decade after landing men on the moon, the US had exactly no space vehicles capable of carrying humans to near earth orbit.

And now, even though the shuttle does exist, we lack anything approaching the heavy life capacity the US space program possessed forty years ago. Hence the very costly, unlikely-to-finish-anytime-soon Ares rocket development project, now scheduled for first flight in 2015, forty three years after the last American walked on the moon.

That is: to put it in the words of that noted analyst of science policy, Joni Mitchell,

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you’ve got
‘Til its gone

To return to the core theme of this post, this blog, and Kevin’s comment: John McCain’s priorities for federal spending put science funding in deep danger. If we continue to gut funding for basic science research and education, we face the loss not just of specific projects left undone, but of the capacity to do the cutting edge science and technological investigation that is the foundation of our prosperity and our national security.

Usually I illustrate this blog with fine art. But this clip from a seminal work in American motion picture history seems more appropriate somehow.