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Science Suffers In Unseen Ways From Government Dysfunction

Filed by KOSU News in Education.
October 8, 2013

On Saturday night I saw Gravity, the new semi-realistic space survival flick. I thought: an astrophysicist’s view of this film would certainly be worth a 13.7 post. But I’ve left that thought behind for an email I had received the day before:

Dear user community colleagues,

I am sorry to inform you that NRAO must temporarily suspend its North American operations because of the US Federal Government shutdown. All NRAO North American facilities will be closed effective 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Friday, 4 October 2013 …

The NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) runs all those supercool giant radio dishes you’ve see in movies like Contact.

There are many ways the chaos in Washington effects Americans; they all hurt. The one I get to watch up-close-and-personal is the long-term damage we’re inflicting on the United States’ scientific and technological enterprise.

The NRAO email followed a sobering conversation I’d had the week before with a program officer in one of the nation’s main science-funding agencies. The officer was helping me understand exactly how, even before the shutdown, the inability to get normal government budget processes going translated into shuttered science programs and reduced research capacities. That means the government shutdown is just the most visible example of a very risky game being played with the future of U.S. science. If we don’t change the path we are on today, we may well live to regret the consequences long into the future.

Let me be clear — lest anyone interpret what follows as the whining of someone with a hand out to the government — the cuts we are seeing from ham-fisted budget maneuvers like the sequester don’t really take money from my pocket. I am not employed by the federal government. I work for a private university. It’s not people like me who are taking the hit here.

The people who are getting hurt by the budgetary quakes that rumble through Congress are students and young scientists.

When I apply for a research grant the bulk of the money goes to training tomorrow’s researchers. These grants pay for 20-year-old undergraduates assisting in data analysis. They fund 26-year-old graduate students completing the exhaustive training needed to earn a Ph.D. in physics. They give 30-year-old post-doctoral researchers the opportunity to hone their craft as they take the final step toward becoming fully independent scientists. If we keep on this path, it’s the next generation of American scientists that will be lost.

In science, you don’t get to skip a generation.

The reality of science and technology is that you can’t teach it out of a cookbook. It’s a set of practices, behaviors, ethics, attitudes and approaches that are learned through apprenticeship. That’s why it takes so many years of training. Every scientist learns his or her craft from another scientist, a mentor. It’s a link in a chain that goes back many generations, with each scientist connected to both the past and the future of this vital cultural endeavor. As I enter my “midcareer” phase, I realize the most important part of my job now is to pass this craft of scientific research on to the generation ahead of me.

This practical reality should cut across all lines of political debate. Developing the next generation of military satellite communications and surveillance systems, for example, requires a continuous pipeline of physicists and engineers. The ability to accurately understand changes in the Earth’s climate system over the coming decades requires the same pipeline. The life-saving medical advances of tomorrow will not come from U.S. laboratories unless similar pipelines exist in genetics and bioengineering.

You can’t just restart that pipeline once it really fails. The excellence that was part of your tradition fades with the aging of the older generation. Expertise is lost, experience in specific methods you still need is nowhere to be found. The best students from across the world stop applying to your schools and begin traveling to those countries where vigorous scientific research is still supported.

When it comes to the U.S. effort in science, which is and has been exceptional, this is what we are risking. If we do lose it, if we let the pipeline fail, the excellence we have now will not easily be regained.

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4 [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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