More science, not lessFri, 22nd Jul '11, 1:32 pm::
I went to bed late last night and woke up to the sound of loud beeping alarms. Having survived an electrical fire that shook me up from peaceful slumber in 2005, I still panic a bit whenever I detect loud continuous beeps in my sleep. To my relief, I discovered that there was no fire - it was just a power failure and my security system and computer UPS were beeping to alert me that the battery backup had kicked in. Not knowing if it was just me or the whole neighborhood, I walked over to my neighbor's house to check and he said the whole neighborhood was without power because of a transformer malfunction. He called the electric company and was told the power would be back in two hours.
With no power to go back to, I ended up just hanging out with my neighbor and we talked about "The World". It's been a long time since I had a good, friendly argument offline and frankly I was surprised at how different the world appears to him than it does to me. To me, NASA, space exploration, and particle physics research are a necessity. Pushing the boundaries of science, regardless of how soon the research can have practical applications, is imperative. To him, all government-sponsored research was taking away money from hard-working people and giving it to lazy scientists so they could put shrimps on treadmill (depressing link below). In his view, all research should be funded privately and not at the taxpayers expense.
I argued that yes, while 1 out of 1,000 grants involves putting shrimps on treadmills, scientific discovery is not like running a factory. You cannot just say "cure cancer", expect a bunch of researchers to go into a laboratory, and come out with a single cure. That's only possible in Spiderman comics. In real-life, people from all over the world pour their hearts and souls into one single tiny aspect of the entire problem and tirelessly work on it for decades, and if they are fortunate, discover something meaningful. My neighbor has chronic back pain and I asked how would he feel if scientists discovered a special protein that gets released into the shrimp's bloodstream whenever it starts to develop signs of chronic fatigue and that we can create medicine that have the same beneficial effect on humans with chronic back pain? After a few moments of silence, I could sense his mind-gears turning.
Being cynical as I am, I expected him to quote yet another talking-point from some news article but surprisingly he said "You know, that's not so bad. What's half a million bucks when you can get rid of life-long pain for millions of people?" I exclaimed, "And that's exactly what science is! We don't know what is going to work and what's not but we have to keep moving forward. Going to Mars and beyond may seem like a waste of taxpayers money when you could be building more schools but without promotic scientific research, you will never be able to break out of the problems we have in the world today."
We argued back and forth for the next couple of hours about everything from drug legalization to policing of the Internet but before we parted ways, he thanked me for changing his views on scientific research. He said "You know, I never looked at it that way." That made me feel genuinely happy. I expect others to disagree with me on socioeconomic matters as it is quite often not a matter of black and white but rather infinite shades of grey. However, science is a matter of black and white to me. Science good, not-science bad. Of course there are shades of grey within scientific research itself but overall, the world will be a better place with more science, not less.
- Sen. Coburn Targets Shrimp on Treadmill, Other NSF Spending
Sen. Tom Coburn is stepping up his crusade against the National Science Foundation this week with a new report that said the NSF funds frivolous research and fritters away its own management funds.