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A crock of talk

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By Roger Snodgrass

So what was all that drivel about making a big investment in science this year?In fact, for two years now, the U.S. political establishment has been on the verge of fulfilling a commitment that one face of the two-faced world of public life has wanted, needed desperately and promised devoutly to support.We’ve spent a bundle on wish lists and dreamy seminars. Bureaucrats and legislators have flown around the world several times to see with their own eyes and become experts on how uncompetitive we’ve become as a nation.There’s no free lunch, but what is there when your lunch keeps getting eaten?“Almost giving,” as the public service radio spot for charitable activities says, “is not the same as giving.”Here we are at the end of another appropriations cycle and “bupkis” – or beans as they say in Yiddish.We had a deal last year, but it pooped out. We had a deal this year. We had the National Academy of Sciences report by Norman Augustine, “The Gathering Storm,” and all that.We had the American COMPETES Act that laid out the grand plan, that passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate and was ceremoniously signed into law by the President.What happened? The plan, which was ominously unfunded at the time of the ceremonies, led us to believe we would see funding double for the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology and the Office of Science in the Department of Energy. We thought we would be seeing thousands of new teachers for math and science, new science programs and new grants for researchers. And what about that nifty new agency for advanced research projects for the environment?Short answer: not much.The longer explanation: political leaders enjoyed the pretense and luster of sounding smart, but when the chips were down, they bailed.The brutal truth: science and technology have taken at least half a step backward. The National Science Foundation will get a 1 percent increase, according to an analysis of the consolidated budget by the American Institute of Physics, a far cry from the 7 percent per year needed to accomplish the goal. DOE’s Office of Science, minus the earmarks that the President has vowed to suppress, will get a 2.6 percent raise; NIST, 1.4 percent. Those numbers are below the current rate of inflation. Earlier this month, Lawrence Krauss noted in an op-ed editorial in the Wall Street Journal, that a 2006 National Science Foundation survey found that one out of four Americans didn’t know the earth goes around the sun.He also found it bewildering that three of the Republican candidates for president said they did not believe in evolution and one did not believe the issue was important. Krauss is an author and astrophysicist. He’s a member of the steering committee of an organization that has issued a public call for a U.S presidential debate about science and technology.ScienceDebate2008 is an ad hoc organization led by two members of Congress, Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Mich. and Rush Hold, D-N.J., with a growing list of endorsements from Nobel Laureates, captains of industry and leaders of major academic and professional organizations.The idea, Krauss wrote, is to make sure that the next president is adequately informed on issues like climate change, energy research, stem cells and nuclear proliferation.It’s a worthy step beyond befuddlement. But we have a long journey ahead.