The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The crisis of big science
Tom Smith

Stephen Weinberg writes about it here in the NYRB.  Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in physics and by all accounts is a sort of genius.  I met him in 1977 or so back at Cornell where he impressed me as a very impressive and yet annoying man, only too aware of his august status, and yet with a piquant sense of humor.  Nobody's perfect.  Odd that I found it much easier to meet famous people as an undergraduate than I do now, but that is one of the advantages of youth, at least at a great university.  You get a kind of benefit of the doubt you don't get as an adult.  I also met Hans Bethe, who was all around perfectly charming, in an Old World sort of way.  

But anyway, I'm not all that sympathetic to the moans and groans of physicists who say, we must have more billions of dollars, else we shall not come to understand the deep nature of universe.  Even as to astronomers, though I am enthusiastic about astronomy, I feel the same way.  The problem is in the coercive taxation of people to pay for Big Science.  Sure, it's less of a waste than other things government wastes our money on.  In Libertarian Paradise, I might even donate some money to the Big Science Fund so they could look for bosons.  But honestly, my current budget doesn't allow for a lot of pure research on stuff I don't understand and is unlikely to benefit me.  Yeah, I admit that makes me a limited sort of altruist.

Weinberg is often quoted for having said something like "science is one of the few things that elevates human life from the status of farce to that of tragedy."  Well excuse me while I play the grand piano.  I don't really like being told that my little life and everything I love is just a pile of shit compared to the search for some fundamental particle or other.  And yet, I don't think this attitude by some scientists that what they do is the most important thing in the world is all that uncommon.  And that's fine.  You rather want your artists and scientists to think that way; it makes them passionate and willing to work for peanuts.  But it's another thing to make us pay for their passions.  I don't really want to be taxed to pay for opera, experimental music, street art, and all of that nonsense either, but that's because what's good can raise its own money and what's not we're better off without.  Tom Wolfe got it so right when he refered to the typical publically funded sculpture in a public space as "the turd on the plaza." But physics -- yes, it's beautiful but why not ask Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg (in Mark's case, might be wise to ask him sooner rather than later) to chip in a few billion instead of dinging every man and woman who is wondering how the hell they're going to pay to send Junior to MIT or even Podunk Community? And I really am unimpressed by any talk of, oh, you know in Europe they're only too happy to pay for these things.  Call me back when we know for sure they're not going dissolve in some nightmare of insolvency and collapsing social order.  When I think about it, a Page and Brin Institute of Science would probably get a lot more for each research dollar, even measured by knowledge, not dollars, than Harvard or Stanford would.

You often hear that pure science is a good investment.  In fact, at least as of 20 some years ago when I looked at this, the better answer was, we really don't know if pure science is a good investment or not, and you certainly cannot predict that it will be going forward.

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1) Almost all public statements by scientists translate as "Give me da money".
2) Anyway, physics has been stuck for decades and it may well be that what's lacking is a Newton, not a mountain of cash.

Posted by: dearieme | May 23, 2012 2:49:55 PM

The last paragraph in the Weinberg piece:
"It seems to me that what is really needed is not more special pleading for one or another particular public good, but for all the people who care about these things to unite in restoring higher and more progressive tax rates, especially on investment income. I am not an economist, but I talk to economists, and I gather that dollar for dollar, government spending stimulates the economy more than tax cuts. It is simply a fallacy to say that we cannot afford increased government spending. But given the anti-tax mania that seems to be gripping the public, views like these are political poison. This is the real crisis, and not just for science."

This is economic ignorance.
The private sector invests money because it expects a return, that is, it spends a dollar because it expects it will get back a dollar plus a few cents. The public sector spends money expecting that it will get back less than a dollar in return. There are exceptions, but they don't count when spending money the way Weinberg wants to spend public money.

Posted by: Terry | May 24, 2012 10:09:27 AM

The private sector, despite sitting atop record amounts of corporate cash, isn't investing. Why? Because it doesn't expect that "plus a few cents." Whether additional government spending can (or perhaps should) convince them that they should expect to see some reason to spend and invest now is perhaps a different conversation.

Aside from all of that, complaints about government spending on science really just gives me a chance to reflect on one of my favorite Monty Python scenes:

Posted by: TorreySurfer | May 25, 2012 10:03:32 AM

Well you can test your altruism with where you can "kickstart" science and scientists.

Posted by: Warren | May 25, 2012 12:49:59 PM