The War on Science from the Inside

Knute Berger relays the following email from Ed Lazowska, the former co-chair of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (italics mine):

The years of the [George W.] Bush administration have been a black time for science in this nation. I speak with the experience of having co-chaired the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee for Bush, and having chaired the Defense Department’s DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Information Science and Technology Study Group during his presidency. Funds for research, the seed corn of our future competitiveness, have decreased. And the balance of those funds has shifted from longer-range topics — the natural role of the federal government — to shorter-range topics. In the Defense Department, excessive classification of research programs, restrictions on the participation of foreign nationals, and other policy shifts have caused university researchers to abandon working with DoD, meaning that many of the nation’s best minds are not focused on defense-related problems.
Note that DoD funded the research that led to the Internet during the Vietnam war — it is not that we are in a war that is the issue! Presidential scientific advisory committees have been politicized. I have seen this firsthand. The general denigration of science emanating from the White House, and the near completee failure of the President’s Science Advisor, Jack Marburger, to speak out, is poisonous. Right here in Seattle, consider the Discovery Institute and its “intelligent design.” (“Faith-based science” is not what made this nation the world’s leader.)

Lazowska also made some very important points about training new scientists (bold original; italics mine):

What’s unique about the American university system is the way that education, research, and technology transfer are seamlessly intertwined. If you look at my field, computer science, essentially every billion-dollar sub-industry bears the stamp of this. And it’s important to note that for all the talk about tech transfer, it’s people transfer — the graduation of great students — that’s the most important product of universities.

We not only need scientists doing basic research, but we also need people with scientific training in other areas too: education, journalism, government, and, yes, politics.
Lazowska also warns of a potential brain drain (italics mine):

Think about our immigration policy. This nation became the world’s leader by welcoming the best and the brightest from all nations, but today we have a devil of a time getting foreign students into UW, or hiring faculty who are foreign nationals; foreign students who are educated here are “sent back where they came from” upon graduation rather than being retained to grow the technological base of our nation.
Obviously, there is a huge pipeline issue. Eighty-five percent of our undergraduates in UW computer science and engineering are from Washington state, and they are mind-blowingly good. But that’s only about 150 students a year. Kids, by and large, don’t come out of K-12 prepared or inspired to pursue careers in science and engineering. Take a guess — what’s the fastest growing undergraduate major in the U.S. today? “Parks, recreation, and leisure” — preparing people for the booming Alaska tour-boat industry. At the higher-ed level, did you know that Washington ranks 49th among the 50 states in the participation rate in public bachelor’s education? God bless Mississippi! At the same time, we rank fifth in community college participation rate. Our higher education system is oriented toward a manufacturing economy.
What parents need to understand, in their role as parents and in their role as voters, is that it’s our kids who suffer. The great jobs being created in this state involve the creation of intellectual property — software, telecommunications, biomedicine, law, articles in Crosscut. Our kids, though, are not afforded the opportunity to prepare themselves to be first-class participants in this new economy. The K-12 system is failing them (we have to stop kidding ourselves about how Washington’s K-12 system stacks up against our peer states), and our higher-ed system is failing them (due to lack of capacity at the bachelor’s and graduate level, rather than quality issues, for the most part).

While some of these comments are specific to the state of Washington–thankfully, we all can’t be 49th out of fifty–one of the national consequences of turning our universities into job training programs is that we have not prepared students for anything other than higher-order task function. Being a citizen not only means that you are economically productive, but that you can also function as an informed decision maker (in other words, a voter) and as someone who could make cultural contributions (even if this really is just appreciating what should be supported).
There’s also another issue, which is best illustrated by a story. A colleague went to a USAID training session designed to help organizations navigate the USAID funding process. I’m not exaggerating when I say that of the hundred or so people there, only a handful were not from evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups (go figure*). One attendee told my colleague that he was so excited because they could now stop all of the abortions in Africa. What has happened under the Bush administration is that we have attempted to turn young people into scientifically-ignorant, supernaturalist-believing worker drones by cutting funding for science education, and increasing funding for ‘faith-based’ initiatives, which are nothing more than subsidies for sectarian religious groups. Good for people like Bush, but bad for the Republic. The only good news is that at least the religious sectarian hooey might not be taking hold despite all of the state subsidies. Unfortunately, that doesn’t do much to actually educate anyone in the skills they will need.
Heckuva job Bushie.
Speaking of education, go help fund science classes.
*In the case of USAID, the Bush Administration instituted a new directive to include new subcontractors (and contractors) on USAID grants. In principle this sounds fine, but, in reality, what this did was exclude many competent subcontractors with extensive, vetted experience in the developing world, and replaced them with explicitly religious organizations that were incompetent or even used the funding for proselytizing instead of what they were contracted to do.

This entry was posted in Blastocyst Liberation, Education, Funding, Little Lord Pontchartrain, Religion, The War on Science, We're Really Fucked. Bookmark the permalink.