March 13, 2008

Broken Pipeline

Susan Jacoby of the Center for Inquiry may have summed it up best.

"Americans are in serious intellectual trouble -- in danger of losing their hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations." - Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Ideas are being expressed in shorter and shorter time frames as the video generation moves into adulthood encouraging more simplistic thinking. And while this pushes information sharing and global communication forward where does Science stand in the buzzsaw of the information age? If following the major intellectuals and researchers gives us any clue we're not heading to a good place. The White House has fallen into this trap and has waged a silent war for 10 years against many funding agencies.

The best example would be the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Scientists have even coined a term, "broken pipeline", to describe the situation with federal funds to the NIH. In the last 5 years the dollar amount of funding has remained flat, not even keeping up with inflation, when it should have been increased further, even further than inflation. And this complaint isn't just belly-aching by those wanting more funding, there are some important effects other than just having an inadequate supply of research dollars. After 15 years of pushing fresh, new researchers into the field the funding per researcher is achingly low and many people are being pushed out of the field all together.

In the Science community there is a fear circulating among the upper echelon of the major US research institutes that we are moving towards a day when there would be roughly ten major research universities nation wide, through various forces.

A consortium of Universities have begun initiatives and their stuff has some pretty scary predictions. Maybe the biggest voice to come out and speak up is Harvard President Drew Faust, who testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about the problem with science funding.

"You can't throw a rock around Harvard without hitting a scientist who is having trouble getting funding," Anne Giersch, a Harvard Medical School Assistant Professor studying the genetics of hearing loss, told a Boston Globe reporter writing about the funding crisis.

So taking these fears of a ever-dwindling pool of research dollars and exodus of young and old minds alike from the field what will the Presidential candidates do? Well I can't answer for the Democrats (although hopefully they will participate in ScienceDebate2008, which I have blogged about here, here, and here) but I do know where John McCain stands on research dollars.

He has talked with horror about the government spending $3M to study grizzly bear DNA. "I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal," he says, "but it was a waste of money. Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable." Katherine Kendall's work (which McCain is referencing) showed the great recovery of grizzly bears and confirmed that the conservation mechanisms put in place are working. It was a great accomplishment to survey an area that large for that little money, and there is no other way to do it than go in the field. And this is important stuff, we've spent far more than $3M on recovery efforts for the bears and this study confirms that our money has been well spent (something scientists can claim and very few politicians can).

But this isn't the first time McCain has bucked the scientific community. Earlier this month he publicly took up the cause of autism linked to vaccines (blogged here). Unfortunately for John there is tons of scientific evidence against his claim, but that matters little to him. As long as he can stand against he scientific community and for the reduction in scientific costs then he will say it.

And we know where McCain wants to spend money, but I'll leave him with this warning from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." (poor healthcare, cutting science funding, and we spend $2B a day in Iraq, I'd say we're approaching spiritual bankruptcy).

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