Posted tagged ‘Education’

While Weasels Gnaw Our Flesh

June 18, 2017

Just a quick hit to remind everyone that while the criminal investigation of Trump and co. widens, they’re still pissing on us at every opportunity, and calling it rain.

So how’s this: it’s going to be legal again/stay OK for profit-making higher ed to rip off their students/protect the banksters:

The U.S. Department of Education is hitting pause on two of the Obama administration’s primary rules aimed at reining in for-profit colleges.

Department officials said they will block a rule, set to take effect next month, that clarifies how student borrowers can have their loans forgiven if they were defrauded or misled by their college. The plan was first reported by Inside Higher Ed Wednesday.

The Trump administration will pursue a do-over of the rule-making process that produced that regulation, known as borrower defense to repayment, as well as the gainful-employment rule. The latter holds vocational programs at all institutions and all programs at for-profits accountable when they produce graduates with burdensome student loan debt.

Given that college debt is one of the most iron-clad ways to crush upward mobility, this is another move by Trump and the grotesque DeVos to ensure that the current class structure in the United States remains intact.

Putting this in the long view:  the GI Bill, followed by the prioritization of public higher education in the 60s by leaders like Governor Pat Brown of California and Governor George Romney of Michigan, put first class advanced education and training within reach of an unprecedented amount of Americans.  The retreat from that ideal led by (mostly but not exclusively) Republican state governments, beginning with Reagan in California and then in the White House, have incrementally narrowed that opportunity.  Now, the combinatio of cost and constraints on access meant that the debt involved makes higher education as much or more a burden as it is the engine of a better life.

Today’s Republican party is just fine with that.  DeVos is not an outlier; this isn’t on Trump, or only on him.  The idea that higher ed (or education in general) is a business in which students are the product on whom to make a profit is utterly destructive of either a democratic ideal or any plausible concept of social justice.  And it is the core tenet of today’s radical conservatives calling themselves members of the Party of Lincoln.

One last thought:  I had dinner last week with a Democratic Party senior statesman.  He told me that in his view we’ve made the mistake of thinking better policies are argument enough for elections.  They’re not; we surely know that now, right?

Instead we have to convey something more, the framework in which specific good policies can work.  DeVos’ current obscenity gives us a hint as to what that might be. Republicans throw obstacles in the way of Americans making better lives.  Democrats are — and we should say so as loud as we can — the party of opportunity.

At least that’s my take.  I know it’s hardly original.  But whatever the particular frame you may favor, I think one of our biggest needs right now is to find a way to both describe and be (ever more) the party that can lay claim to affirmative allegiance, and not just the true fact that we are better than the other side.  Your feeling?

(Oh — and happy Father’s Day, all.  This thread should be open enough to tell us your plans, completed or still in prospect, for the day.  Mine? Pick up one of the rib-eyes on sale at Whole Paycheck today, and smoke it in the Weber egg.)

Image: Winslow Homer, The Country School 1871

A Lesson In Compassion (From Within A “Family Values” State)

January 30, 2014

Nothing says the dignity of humanity; nothing says kindness; nothing says how a high level of public religiosity makes for a better society than literally ripping  food out of hungry kids hands, and, in front of them, throwing it away:

Up to 40 kids at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City picked up their lunches Tuesday, then watched as the meals were taken and thrown away because of outstanding balances on their accounts — a move that shocked and angered parents.

Max_Liebermann_Kindervolksküche

“It was pretty traumatic and humiliating,” said Erica Lukes, whose 11-year-old daughter had her cafeteria lunch taken from her as she stood in line Tuesday at Uintah Elementary School, 1571 E. 1300 South.

Eleven years old!

I’m a dad, as y’all probably know.  My kid is 13 now.  He’s a total pain in the ass about food right now — won’t touch most stuff, including his school’s cafeteria fare.  He takes food from home and we top him up when he gets home.  But he used to get some stuff there.  I remember topping up his account once or twice when I dropped him off — we’d either crossed over into the red or come too close to it.  No one at his school would have dreamed of grabbing his bagel; we’d get a note asking for another five bucks for the system.  That’s how you do it.

If anyone had stopped my son in the middle of the cafeteria line, grabbed his tray and dumped his lunch?

I can’t imagine what I’d have done and said.  I can imagine what that experience would do to my child — to any kid.  Public poor-shaming –turning some little kid, with no power, no agency, no ability to defend or deflect or do anything, into nothing more than your prop in some twisted morality play about the undeserving proles.  I’m sorry about the run-on there. The rage and refracted sorrow/sympathy for the chidren some asshole(s) decided it was OK to hurt just overwhelms my ability to calm down my syntax.  But you get the point:  this  is no way to teach an 11 year old anything.  Or rather it’s just the right way to learn both that child and all her or his peers how to be the worst we can be.

One more thing:  I’m slamming on Utah in the headline, because I’m sick of sitting here in godless Massachusetts listening to folks from the religiousist corners of our country tell us how we all need to emulate the values in which such places are alledgedly rich.

But I take this personally too.  This isn’t just Utah.  An action like this is the logical endpoint of a culture that frames all things as the battle of the individual against society.  I like living in a social setting.  I think the genius of American democracy in the abstract is that it provides a once-novel way of mediating between levels of association from village on up and the individual.  So when  I hear the words “American exceptionalism,  I’d like them to have some other meaning than that we are exceptional in our capacity to be cruel to hungry children.

Image: Max Liebermann, Kindervolksküche, 1915

No, No, No, Frothy Mixture. The Question Is: Does Natural Selection Believe in You?

December 10, 2011

Missed this yesterday, but via TPM, this,  from the candidate with the unfortunate Google problem:

Discussing controversial classroom subjects such as evolution and global warming, Santorum said he has suggested that“science should get out of politics” and he is opposed to teaching that provides a “politically correct perspective.”

(From the Des Moines Register.)

Well then, dude.  That settles it.  I guess the Santorum Administration…[pause to quell my alternating gusts of laughter and nausea]…will balance that damn budget by axing the NIH and the NSF, for starters.

I really have nothing else to add, except this:  I just hope (really — I mean this) that no member of the Santorum family ever gets infected with a religiously incorrrect MRSA bug.  Santorum may not believe in evolution, but our old friend staph?  Mr. aureus (et al.)  sure does…

 Image:  Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) 1881

Facts Matter (Education Division)

September 27, 2011

Kay over at Balloon Juice recently posted on Republican whining that our president thinks governing is actually something worth doing.  I agree both with her disdain for the president’s (and, in my view) our polity’s opponents, and her argument that in fact it is important to try to solve problems before they become crises.

That’s especially true in the case of No Child Left Behind, which threatens real disruption when the day of reckoning comes (soon, in 2014) — with the heaviest impact falling, of course, on those least able to bear it.

But it is important to remember as well that Obama is no knight sans peur and sans reproche in the school reform fight.

I’m no kind of expert here, but what has consistently driven me crazy every time I’ve dipped a toe into the literature on education reform is the near-total absence of any actual reason to believe anything so called reformers say.

So without further ado, I’ll turn the critique over to Diane Ravitch,  a stalwart in chronicling and condemning the Overlords’ attempt to remake American education to some abstract vision.  In her latest, a damning review of Stephen Brill’s panagyric to the grand alliance of Wall St. viceroys and Silicon Valley technophiles, she offers this summary of the Obama administration’s approach to the reform of reform:

The Obama administration has offered to grant waivers from the onerous sanctions of NCLB, but only to states willing to adopt its preferred remedies: privately managed charter schools, evaluations of teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores, acceptance of a recently developed set of national standards in reading and mathematics, and agreement to fire the staff and close the schools that have persistently low scores. None of the Obama administration’s favored reforms—remarkably similar to those of the Bush administration—is supported by experience or evidence.

Most research studies agree that charter schools are, on average, no more successful than regular public schools; that evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is fraught with inaccuracy and promotes narrowing of the curriculum to only the subjects tested, encouraging some districts to drop the arts or other nontested subjects; and that the strategy of closing schools disrupts communities without necessarily producing better schools. In addition, the “Common Core State Standards” in reading and mathematics that states must adopt if they hope to receive a waiver from the US Department of Education have never been subjected to field-testing.

I am pretty close to an O-bot, I guess, and I do think that we have in President Obama one of the most sneakily effective drivers of real policy change to be seen around these parts for a long time.  And again, I’m nothing like an education reporter.

But my background as a science writer makes me very suspicious.  The Obama waiver seems better than the alternative of the NCLB guillotine — Obama at his worst is a meliorist, a believer in the possibility of progress through human endeavor.  But the weakness of the empirical justification for what is on offer sticks in my craw…and it reminds me that even with the best of our friends, being on the right side of the angels most of the time still means that some moments are spent on the far side of that line.  Which bears noticing, and an attempt to repair.

Oh — and this all gives me a very sketchy excuse to post a wonderful video turned up by my Swiss science writing colleague Reto Schneider.  The video documents what purports to be a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.”  It is…well see for yourself, and think Sokal before Sokal:

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See how great all that science-y stuff is for education and all?

For the details on the hoax (and the astonishing fact that even after being told the whole thing was a fake, some members in the audience persisted in seriously-intended questions!), check out what Reto has to say at the link above.

Image:  Antonio de Pereda, The Knight’s Dream, 1655

Really, Teacher. I Read the Assignment. The Marvel Comics Version.

December 22, 2010

Cross Posted at Balloon Juice

I don’t usually bother reading anything Conor Friedersdorf has to say. While it is fun to watch in a kind of rooting-for-injuries kind of way, there are only so many times one can sit through the wrecks of his attempts to redefine the word “conservative” as the actual state of American conservatism rejects his blandishments, and while reality consistently demonstrates its well-known liberal bias.

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It’s always seemed better (or at least more efficient) to fall back on a  general stance of benign neglect when confronted by his byline.

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But for some reason, I stopped to look at this short squib in which  Friedersdorf declares, breathlessly, “If true what a tremendously consequential abstract.”

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That link takes you to the cover page of a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (a non-governmental site, despite the name) written by Hoover Institute economist Eric Hanushek.

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Here’s the passage that caught Friedersdorf’s eye:

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A teacher one standard deviation above the mean effectiveness annually generates marginal gains of over $400,000 in present value of student future earnings with a class size of 20 and proportionately higher with larger class sizes. Alternatively, replacing the bottom 5-8 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the U.S. near the top of international math and science rankings with a present value of $100 trillion.

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Friedersdorf then links to Adam Ozimek, who calls the abstract “shocking,” and claims that the most important lesson to learn here is that

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…we should place even less relative value on teacher well-being for it’s own sake (which is separate from teacher well-being to the extent that it improves outcomes) when considering reforms. I think this is something that some progressives aren’t as happy to hear, especially with regard to using the teaching profession as a middle class jobs program.

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There’s only one problem.  Neither Friedersdorf or Ozimek admit to having read the underlying paper.  I’ll concede that it’s a hassle — one needs either the right kind of email address or a few bucks to do so — but still…

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For my part, I did manage to track down the piece.   For the purposes of this post, I’ll go only so far as to say that Hanusek both writes widely on the economics of education and that he has plenty of critics on more or less every major line of inquiry.

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But the issue isn’t whether Hanushek gets it right or wrong when he suggests that great teachers produce outcomes for the students that have cash value later in life.*

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Rather, it’s that by wading into educational policy on the basis of reading a paragraph on the front end of a forty page paper (that itself lies at the tip of who-knows-how-many-thousands-of-pages of literature in this fiedld) one begins to show off one’s stupid pundit tricks.

For example:

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How “shocking” are these results?

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That jolt would be a little less if you read — hell not the primary literature — but, say, just blog posts written by the New York Times’ best economics writer, David Leonhardt, who in the distant obscurity of … oh, this summer, reported on another study that looked at the impact of a good kindergarten teacher on future earnings and other social outcomes.**

Anyone who is stunned by the specific result or the broader claim that educational outcomes have an impact on economic success simply hasn’t been paying attention…which evokes, of course, the inevitable Captain Reynaud moment:

I\’m shocked, shocked…

And now for the next trick:

If you only read the Cliff’s notes version blurb (h/t NonyNony) for this paper, then you get that breezy “replace the bottom 5-8%”…but you miss all of Hanushek’s discussion within the paper about how difficult it is actually to identify good teachers in advance of observing outcomes from the classroom, and how hard it is to incentivize them if you do.

But that doesn’t stop Friedersdorf from kvelling to the headline “Pay The Best Teachers More And Fire The Worst.”  Too bad he didn’t get to this line from the concluding passages of the article:

Unfortunately, we know little about the supply function for teacher quality.  Thus, it is not possible to predict what kinds of pay changes would be needed to ensure any given quality of teacher force.

Again, I’m not calling for rocket science here.  I don’t expect Friedersdorf to be a credentialed expert on everything he writes.  (I’m not, on anything.)  All I want here is minimal curiosity, and enough of both self-regard and respect for his audience to go past some quote he reads somewhere on the web and check out the primary source.  Am I crazy?

Oh, and what about the fine moral dudgeon expressed by Ozimek, who informs us weak-willed, soft-headed and pernicious progressives that we’ve just got to get over ourselves and stop treating teaching as a jobs program for the otherwise-unemployable middle class?

(A) This is pure asshattery.  Here I’m going to treat anecdotage as data, and speaking as the father of a ten year old who has experienced private school and is now in a public one, I cannot get over the fact that even the weaker teachers (and my son has seen one or two) work sixty hour weeks, in a state of continuous intellectual and emotional alert, with a level of physical and mental effort that would crush any mere blogger (or this wayward university professor, for that matter).

Teaching kids is hard, which is mere prologue to the more on-point issue…

…which is that (B) If teaching is some royal road to indoor work and three squares a day — this job program of which Orizek speaks — then it is hard to reconcile that sense of unmerited employment with figures that emerge ( yup, again) from the body of the paper whose abstract so stunned some folks capacity for further inquiry.  Hanushek writes,

the U.S. has have for a long time trained considerably more teachers than the number of positions that annually become open in schools.  For example, in 2000 86,000 recent graduates entered into teaching, even though 107,000 graduated with an education degree the year before

 

That is:  as it really exists, as opposed to the form it takes in the minds of those whose sunlit minds are seemingly unsullied by experience of the world the rest of us inhabit, teaching is no soft-option safety-net occupation into which any liberal-arts drifter may come to rest as an alternative to asking “would you like fries with that?”  Rather, it is one more tough occupation in which the supply of labor exceeds the current labor market demand.

And in fact, given the decline in the economic value we place on the education of the young,***  the search for first class teachers  increasingly turns on the hope that enough people will see it as a calling, and not as white-collar sweat-shop labor.

That devoted, expert, effective teachers can be found as often as they are (and thankfully, emphatically, in my son’s classroom) is testimony to the fact that money is not the sole measure of value for all things and all people.  But that also suggests that whatever the answer may be to the question about how to get more of such folks distributed through American schools, it seems to me vanishingly unlikely that a blithe disdain for the well-being of such teachers (outcomes or no) will do the trick.

Please note:  I’m not saying that the US does not have a huge education problem to address.  I’m not saying that there aren’t giant issues of both social justice and pure efficacy to deal with.  I’m not saying I have any better idea than anyone else about what to do.  Figuring out how to make sure our kids iz lernign gud is as important as anything I can think of.

But as Friedersdorf and Ozimek remind us, this is why it is so difficult to hear the phrase “conservative public intellectual” without both weeping and snorting.  Seriously — if the best they can do is trot out a f**king abstract in defense of a bit of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger union bashing, then they have only themselves to blame when we mock them.  And on the flip side — if we leave such fecklessness unsnarked then we may blame only ourselves when such miserable stuff becomes revealed truth.

*Given that a fair amount of what economists do when they are performing well is to quantify the obvious, I’ll go out on a limb and say the conclusion that good teachers help their students do well in life is not exactly stunning.  Not that it isn’t worthwhile documenting, or examining in detail…just that, pace poor, easily stupified Mr. Ozimek — I can’t claim to be shocked by that part of Hanushek’s research.

**One interesting aspect of this study is that it suggests that test scores may be a less than wholly reliable indicator of real-world success.  (I’m stunned.)  But that’s for a different post, and a lot more work.

***Hanushek writes,

Perhaps the most notable recent pattern in teacher salaries is that they have fallen dramatically in relation to the rest of the economy.  The changing position of teachers is clear in salary trends since the beginning of World War II.  Compared to the earnings of male college graduates, the average male teacher was slightly above the 50th percentile in 1940.  The average female teacher was close to the 70th percentile among college-educated females.  But then male teachers fell precipitously to the bottom third of the earnings distribution for college graduates, and female teachers were below average during the 1960s and close to the relative male position by 1990.  In 2000, less than 30 percent of young males and less than 40 percent of young females with a bachelor’s degree earned less than the average teacher

Images: Krzysztof Lubieniecki, School Teacher, 1727.

Kasimir Malevich, Unemployed Girl, 1904

Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read McArdle: Keep the Military Dumb edition, part one

December 28, 2009

Alright.  The title is, perhaps, a little hyperbolic.  But, channeling my inner McArdle, such is blogging.

This recent little gift from McArdle is not quite as disastrous as it could be, in fact…but I do want to pick up a little bit of the folly within because I think this post captures so much of what makes her such a bad and, in real ways, such a damaging participant in our public discourse. (You’ll find part two of this screed here.)

The short form, to enable those with day jobs to ignore the tome that follows, is that McArdle argues that “the obvious solution” to the problem that not all advanced degrees sought by serving members of the armed forces are as rigorous as they might be, is to end the practice of encouraging service members to seek such degrees.

That is, to this as to all other issues raised by interactions between the state and private institutions, McArdle already knows the answer:  government can’t do nuthin’ right.

But of course, her treatment of this issue is simplistic, second hand, ignorant of the actual complicated ground of real experience involved and largely wrong. But no matter:  Given the fundamental truth of government incapacity, there is no need, in the McArdle alternate universe, to test assumptions about the failures of public action and the necessary virtues of private endeavor.

I’ve been criticized before for dissing McArdle through arguments from authority, for suggesting that even in her area of supposed expertise, economics, McArdle has essentially no formal training.  Some may see the above as a reiteration of that argument.

But that’s not right.  It is true that McArdle doesn’t possess academic training in economics in any significant degree — but I and many others I know write about lots of things in which we were not professionally trained.  We do so, though, in the context of the practices of research and journalism: we report, we hit the library, we check facts, we call people.

My argument about McArdle is in fact one of negative authority:  given her unwillingness to expand her competence, it’s a pretty good default to assume that pretty much anything she says is false, unless it is corroborated three ways from zero.  In other words, it’s not that her qualifications are not sufficient to evoke trust in what she says; it is that she refuses to do that without which no amount of qualifications could justify such trust.

More broadly:  McArdle is not the real problem. She certainly commands an audience, but I don’t know that she’s genuinely influential.  She preaches to a choir, and for all her efforts to engage folks who actually do know what they’re talking about on policy, political economy, and so on, it doesn’t seem — to me at least — that she’s risen above the background pop poli-culture noise.

But even if I’m right in seeing her more as a court jester than a privy councilor, she’s a symptom.  (Very mixed metaphor alert — ed.)

So take the mountain of verbiage that follows as an attempt to illustrate what has happened to, say, the health care debate, in which the endlessly repeated lie that a publicly-run insurance plan is “socialism” had such impact.  In that debate, this claim did not need to be “proved” by anything remotely resembling actual evidence.  Rather, it was presented as an axiom that government action in the face of social problems is both illegitimate and ineffective.

So even though McArdle is not in fact worth the mountains of effort her errors evoke in those who would correct the record, it still seems to me important to point out that the way she and others achieve whatever influence they possess is both driven to error and is disastrous.  Constant vigilance and all that.

So here goes, much too much gnashing of teeth at her post on the problems in the system by which the Department of Defense attempts to educate in-service enlisted members and officers.

McArdle’s post was prompted by a piece by James Joyner in which he discusses whether or not military-funded higher education for its soldiers and officers is delivering on its various promises.

There is in fact something of a real story there: the Department of Defense has a significant pool of money to spend on tuition support for higher education for its uniformed personnel, and as Joyner says, incentives exist for soldiers and officers to seek such education.  Field grade officers need advanced degrees to enhance their chances for promotion to the upper ranks; senior NCOs and Warrant Officers need at least some post-high school education for their advancement; and many recruits, even those not planning extended military careers, seek useful education/training to give them a leg up on civilian life.

There are certainly flaws in Joyner’s post, however, mostly due to his selective reading from the main source of his post.  But at least he read that source and engaged it.  The divine Ms. M. M., commits the greater sin when she takes that misreading at face value, however, declining to interrogate the underlying story…and the results are not pretty.

She writes,

I get the impression that the primary market for diploma mill degrees is in various branches of the government.  The civil service system, the army, and various local departments like teachers, all automatically reward you with higher pay if you get a degree.  Since they don’t distinguish between the caliber of the schools, the obvious solution is to find the easiest course you can.  Undoubtedly this happens in private organizations too, but since the purpose of a degree in the private sector is signalling rather than box-checking, there is some incentive for gravitating towards higher-quality degrees.

Well, there is a carload of sly in there, so let’s break it down just a little.

I’m going to save the first for later — that “I get the impression” business — because that line is the key to so much of McArdle.

Instead, let’s pick up the thread at “diploma mill degrees.”  Here she picks up a phase Joyner also uses, and it is one that is designed to maximize the onus against the kinds of distance learning programs the uniformed military might undertake.  It is a tricky phrase.

For example:  there is no doubt that plenty in higher education would argue that the term covers an operation like one cited the article that evoked Joyner’s pice — the University of Phoenix, with its horde of students and array of programs and degrees/certificates and what not to sell them, all owned by a publicly traded corporation with a keen eye for the bottom line.

But the University of Phoenix, like all institutions that meet the US military’s requirements for general higher education service providers, is an accredited institution.*  Degree or diploma mills conventionally understood are unaccredited purveyors of meaningless credentials.  A diploma mill degree from any of these institutions would not provide any advantage to a military career, while accredited institutions, even ones you may not think terribly highly of, must provide some kind of instruction to go along with the credential.

In other words, you’ve already got a bit of a common McArdle trope here, that rhetorical sleight of hand deftly used to make a bad day worse.

That said, McArdle might argue, pointing to Joyner’s post and its examples, that this is a distinction without much of a difference, because students at places like the University of Phoenix and other, worse actors, aren’t getting any worthwhile education despite the fact of accreditation.

But either McArdle did not actually read the Bloomberg article by Daniel Golden that Joyner used, selectively, to underpin his personal take on military education — or she did and chose not to pay attention to those parts of the piece that contradict preconceived certainties.

There, she might have found that the issue Golden documents is the damage the profit motive does to the delivery of useful education to the military — and not, as she goes on to criticize, the notion of in-service higher education at all.

For as Golden documents, but McArdle does not appear to have grasped or even noticed, not-for-profit, government-funded educational institutions do a much better job.  But that’s a story that violates McArdle’s essential understanding (expressed in the quoted paragraph above) that nothing the public sector may set out to accomplish is as wonderful as what the private sector does without trying.

The moral:  If you don’t want to know, you won’t try to find out; and if you don’t, the likliest outcome is that what you write will be wrong.

Or to flip the point:  if you already know that profit maximization is the one true road to any desired end, then heaven forfend that you actually come to grips with the facts presented on the specific questions to whose answers your faith has already guided you.

And with that…on to part two!

*See, e.g.,this statement of the requirement from Army Regulation 621-5, most recently revised in September, 2009:  “Institutions offering ACES postsecondary programs will be accredited by national or regional accrediting agencies recognized by U.S. Department of Education (ED).”

Image:  Dosso Dossi, “Portrait of a Court Jester,” 16c.

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.