Thursday, February 5, 2009

A request to save the NAE and NSF

So it turns out that a couple of Senators have proposed gutting stimulus funds for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Science Foundation, as well as other programs.

From the New York Times:

The effort is being led by two centrist senators — Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine.

Among the initiatives that could be cut are $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, $14 million for cyber security research by the Homeland Security Department, $1 billion for the National Science Foundation, $400 million for research and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, $850 million for Amtrak and $400 million for climate change research. But so far, none of the suggestions come close to being enough to shrink the package on the scale proposed.

I think this is an enormous mistake. I detailed why in a letter sent to the Times. Who knows if it'll be published, so here it is for the record:

Dear Editor,

On Thursday the Times reported that Senators Bob Nelson and Susan Collins are proposing to cut $200 billion from the stimulus bill by gutting support for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation, and other similar programs (

As a full-time, professional scientist, I would be remiss without defending these institutions. Both science and the arts are two of the major industries in which the US is still dominant around the world. Every year, flocks of people come to the US to attend graduate school, get into Hollywood movies or Broadway plays, work for technology startup, etc. In a way, arts and science are our remaining flagship industries. Despite this, however, we are drastically losing ground each year to countries such as China, India, and Russia. The relatively meager investment for these fields in the stimulus bill would foster the momentum we currently have in these areas.

Now, science and the arts are often seen as dead weight because they are heavily subsidized by the government. However, there is popular support to fund the military first-responders, and infrastructure programs which receive just as much support (if not more). In addition, the fields of arts and science have the added bonus that they also create new jobs. This investment would not only provide primary jobs for researchers, aspiring film makers, engineers, etc., but the resulting discoveries and creations that they build will foster an exponential growth in secondary jobs as new industries (or whole new fields) are born. Think about how many bio-technology, pharmaceutical, and high-tech companies are started each year from of novel scientific discoveries from federally supported research. Consider how the symphony orchestra you just attended or the movie you just download from iTunes was put together by people who were supported by arts grants in college.

Speaking from what I know best, the past eight years have been depressingly hard on my occupation as a scientist. Budget cuts have resulted in fewer and fewer research grants being awarded each year. As a result I have witnessed new and innovative research and development in my field be stifled due to lack of funding. There is no telling how many innovative discoveries have already been lost because of the current funding environment. The money allocated to the NEA and NSF in the stimulus package are badly needed booster shots to these ailing parts of what's left of the US economy. It is simply shorted sighted to think that they do not also need a bailout.

Timothy Verstynen, Ph.D.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Global Warming might now be "irreversible"

I remember reading the 1998 State of the World report for a class in college. One of the articles was on the risk of global climate change reaching a saturation point, where no matter how we changed our habits, a tragic sequence of events would proceed to change our planet for hundreds or even thousands of years. That was considered dire threat 10 years ago.

After 8 years of suffering the will of self-centered oilmen, a new study out in PNAS shows that the latest climate models suggest we have just passed this point of no return.

Climate change is essentially irreversible, according to a sobering new scientific study.

As carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, the world will experience more and more long-term environmental disruption. The damage will persist even when, and if, emissions are brought under control, says study author Susan Solomon, who is among the world's top climate scientists.

Now I am not an expert on these types of dynamical climate models, but I have worked on similar attractor systems for my own research and I can say that once these competitive forces cascade, there often is nothing to do but to let the system stabilize. Whether we really have reached this point is still up for debate. However, the fact that we're even worried about it is disturbing enough. I hope that Al Gore's Nobel Prize didn't come 10 years to late.

Chess or Checkers in Diplomacy?

Scientific American has a beautiful post on the policy genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer. We normally associate Oppenheimer with mathematical brilliance and nuclear physics. However, Oppenheimer was also a man of Chess in an international game of Checkers. A tactical wizard who understood the complexity and depth of international politics.

From the article:

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election between John Kerry and George W. Bush, I appeared as a guest on comedian and social commentator Dennis Miller's television talk show on CNBC, during which he made the following comparison: John Kerry is like a wickedly smart chess player, capable of looking ahead many moves, anticipating what his opponent might do and carefully weighing all his options before arriving at a rational decision. By contrast, George W. Bush is more like a checkers player, moving by instinct and glancing around the board for an easy way to king his men. In this world of good and evil, Miller explained, simple black-and-white thinking based on unwavering principles of absolute right and wrong trumps the drawn-out consideration of the nuanced thinker. In other words, with evil empires and malevolent terrorists on the loose, Miller would prefer a checkers player over a chess master.


Oppenheimer was a chess grand master in a game of checkers. He was looking to checkmate the other guy's king by trapping his queen, maneuvering around his bishops and sidestepping his knights, whereas his opponent was merely planning to jump his pieces and have himself kinged. For most of his political and military (and to a lesser extent scientific) colleagues, building the atomic bomb and dropping it on the enemy was a moral no-brainer. Oppenheimer was tormented by the bomb's moral complexities, particularly its postwar expansion into an arms race. It's not that the other leaders of the Manhattan Project had not carefully thought through their decisions; it is that once they made their decisions they moved forward without compunction. What ultimately brought down Oppenheimer was that the government prosecutors in the 1954 hearings trapped him in what they considered to be blatant lies that were, for Oppenheimer, difficult moral choices that caused him to change his positions on people (whom he associated with before or during the Manhattan Project—namely, an ex-lover and a communist sympathizer) and decisions (to share or not to share atomic secrets after the war).
Read the whole article for more, but if ever there was a Prometheus of the atomic-age, it was J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A new dawn for Science and Politics?

This weekend, Salon (subscription or watch a brief ad) has a brilliant analysis of Obama's new cohort of energy advisers which brings a tear to my eye.

From the article:
But the path toward a carbon-reduced future will not be an easy one. President Obama will be challenged by a lack of awareness by the media and major opinion makers, who still don't grasp the scope of the problem, and by the majority of GOP politicians who refuse to accept the dire facts of climate science. If Obama is going to lead this country and the world in the fight to preserve a livable climate, he will be forced to do so in a partisan fashion. That task can't be underestimated. But it's a huge relief to see the energy team that Obama has assembled for the battle.
Be sure to read the whole thing. Joseph Romm gets the true brilliance of this team of scientists and policy makers in perfect form. By giving power to people who are steeped in not only scientific facts, but the true adherence to skepticism and empiricism that is the core philosophy of science, Obama has shown that he is serious in addressing the long left abandoned problems of the 21st Century. It will be interesting to see what this Chu, Jackson and Browner can get down in the next few years.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My apologies for the long delay

Am juggling too much at work right now.  But man, I have to say it is going to be a BOON for science with this new administration.  So refreshing from the last.

I will be back in a few weeks with more postings.  In the meantime... check out the posts I'm reading on my Google Reader page.