June 16, 2024

Science == Prosperity

The National Academies of Science recently produced a report titled “Condensed-Matter and Materials Physics: The Science of the World Around Us” and in it says that the U.S. has failed to increase funding for CMMP research at the same rate as our competitors and that we have all but lost our position of leadership in the field.

But what in the heck is CMMP, you ask? Essentially its the study of the intersection of matter and energy as applied to making things that are useful to humanity. Sounds vague, but what label can be more specific and still apply to fields as wide-ranging as nanotechnology, quantum computing, super-conductivity, and cutting edge electronics?

In other words, CMMP research points the way to the future of technology. Clearly the U.S. needs to be a leader in this field in order to remain relevant in the second half of this century. The NAS says that we’ve been doing a piss-poor job of it for the last decade and more.

Writing about this report at Ars Technica, John Timmer says:

…government funding has not kept up with the rising costs of research at the same time that the corporate-funded research lab system has collapsed. As a result, US scientific productivity has stagnated at a time when funding and output are booming overseas. The report makes a series of recommendations that it hopes will get US physics research booming again.

Based on publications in Physical Reviews B and E, the US contribution to papers has remained flat over the last decade, while papers originating from other countries have nearly doubled. The report predicts that this reduced output will ultimately exact a price on the American economy.

It suggests that all interested parties, ranging from industry through the Department of Defense and Energy to the academic world, should meet and determine what’s needed to recreate the research environment they once fostered. Unfortunately, beyond calling for these discussions, the report is remarkably vague about how to resuscitate these now moribund labs.

Readers of Thomas Freidman will not be surprised by this. In “The World is Flat“, Freidman so clearly painted a picture of America’s failed future – the very same future that is being starved even now by the billions of dollars wasted in Iraq and at home on self-indulgent welfare programs – that I immediately began to include education as one of my top priority blogging subjects.

Can you imagine a future in which Indian and China dominate the technology fields? I mean really dominates them, not merely at a low-cost manufacturing level – any country with millions of dirt poor people can do that given the political will – but at the design capabilities level where inventions – and progress – is really made?

I can and it scares the hell out of me. Not for my sake – I’m halfway to the finish line and the U.S. will hold up long enough for me to reach the end of the line (unless the Muslims pull some lunacy in Israel, in which case this post won’t matter much). No, my concern is for my children’s sake, not my own.

In the end, that’s why we scratch, claw, work, and compete the way we do in American – to provide a better life for our children than the one we had. At least it is for the sane. I propose to speak only to and for them anyway, the loons being totally irrelevant.

Therefore, I’ve reduced the equation to one that even losers like Paris “Tilt In” Hilton can understand:

Science == Prosperity

Not too difficult, is it? Even an elected official, say someone with a vote in the way that federal expenditures are allocated to the various worthy and unworthy causes that have their hands out and voices raised, ought to be able to understand something so obvious.

Yet in the last 5 years the probability of a university researcher getting a grant application funded has been cut almost in half while those of new researchers have fallen even further. Meanwhile the cost of supporting students has increased more than the size of grants. Small wonder that U.S. authors have seen their output in terms of publishable works stagnate while their foreign competitors have doubled theirs.

Scientific research in fields like CMMP and space exploration is where the hundreds of billions of dollars poured into Iraq should have gone.

(While it’s too late to cry over spilt milk and we have to remain engaged there until some conclusion is reached, that fact doesn’t change the truth of the previous paragraph.)

George Bush purports to support scientific research but his actions show otherwise. Using perhaps the most visible example, NASA’s budget has not increased markedly during Bush’s administration. The space shuttle is still being flown and no crash program to replace it has been initiated. Americans have not returned to the moon nor left for Mars.

In short, we have done nothing to advance ourselves. How long can this blaise approach to the business of high-tech competition be allowed to continue? Not long, in this writer’s opinion.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

View all posts by marc →