Monday, November 3, 2008

Science and Decision '08

I find it interesting that 61 Nobel laureates (22 of them Physics Nobelists) signed a letter endorsing Barack Obama, the largest number of Nobel laureates to come out and support a single candidate. The letter mentions reasons for supporting Obama, but I see no indication in the letter of what particular deficiency McCain has that would warrant not supporting him.

In his New Scientist column, physicist Lawrence Krauss points out that this is rather odd given that historically Republicans have actually tended to fund science more strongly than Democrats. In another essay, Krauss goes into detail on why he will be voting for Obama. (Only part of this rationale is due to the anti-scientific stances which Sarah Palin seems to support.)

This support among scientists seems to largely come from the idea that Obama presents a more thoughtful demeanor and, when forced to consider which programs to emphasize and which to cut, will take the larger view of what's better for our nation ... in other words, he'll support investment in our science and technology infrastructure over more short-term programs.

Here's an analogy: your property taxes have increased substantially, and puts you in a situation of economic hardship. You had to decide what to abandon, and you cable television access went away, much to your regret. You did, however, choose to keep your equally-costly internet access ... and had you not done so, you wouldn't have been able to surf the net or get any work done if you wanted to telecommute. I know several people, however, who would lose their internet over cable television, or potentially given up both.

In my viewpoint, internet access is not merely another stream of media access, but an investment. While the information I obtain from cable television is useful in my work, the access to information through the internet was fundamentally crucial even then, and has become only moreso since. Internet access is essential to my life and work, while cable television is optional.

And this is where the analogy comes back to science - because the President will face the similar decisions in the year ahead, as he tries to pay off the $700 billion price tag on the Wall Street bailout bill and has to decide which components of the national infrastructure are optional and which are essential.

The problem, of course, is that when looking at it on the national level, everything is essential to someone, because every industry has people who make their living in it.

Is a bear DNA study or an "overhead projector" for a Planetarium an extravagance, or a crucial investment into our scientific and educational plan for the United States? Does intelligence design deserve equal presentation in a science classroom to neo-darwinian evolution? Is pure scientific research an investment that America needs to make, even in tough times?


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