Archive for the 'Politics' Category

STEMming the Myth

The STEM Crisis Is a Myth

A pretty good summary of the situation, I think, including the point that making more students scientifically literate is not the same as churning out more science majors.

Also, this:

Clearly, powerful forces must be at work to perpetuate the cycle. One is obvious: the bottom line. Companies would rather not pay STEM professionals high salaries with lavish benefits, offer them training on the job, or guarantee them decades of stable employment. So having an oversupply of workers, whether domestically educated or imported, is to their benefit. It gives employers a larger pool from which they can pick the “best and the brightest,” and it helps keep wages in check.

Tell Them!

The Utility Of Physics

Excellent points about the general question of why physics is important and should be funded.

Even in areas in which it is difficult to argue for the application and usefulness to the public, we can bring out the argument that it is difficult know the future applications of such knowledge. The history of physics is littered with many such examples, including quantum mechanics. The early development of quantum mechanics had almost no emphasis on the usefulness and application. If we only want to fund work that had such clear utility, then we would have missed out on the development of quantum mechanics.

This, in particular, given the recent (and incredibly myopic) push to limit research funding to areas with commercial or national security applications.

Letting the Air Out, Thank Goodness

I was gearing up for a rant about how the sequester, and in particular the furloughs, were sucking all the air from the room, but it was just announced that they will stop at six days, which means just one more week of this nonsense. So that kills the worst part of my rant, thank goodness.

The lesson of the first four-and-a-half-weeks is that scheduling time, especially with more than two people, becomes incredibly more difficult when you lose a day per week if your furlough days aren’t synched up. Any interaction where you need information from someone else, or vice-versa, becomes strained; there is no quick turnaround when key people are absent on random days, and you have your own work you are trying to get done. Work in the lab has slowed considerably because that’s one of the variables, while bureaucratic nonsense seems to be a constant, and when you reduce hours, the constants don’t seem to shrink. This was not a 20% reduction of useful work output — it was more than that. These are probably some of the reasons academic researchers work the long hours: they can, because they are on salary, and the research part of the job is where the extra hours are spent, after teaching and doing all of the bureaucratic overhead.

The people up on top of the food chain, to their credit, have been insistent that nobody sneak in unpaid overtime to compensate. It was recognized that a furlough meant that work would not get done. It seems to me that many were irked by the political narrative that there’s all this fat and bloat in the military, so that the sequester will have no effect on operations, because the fat would be cut. Well, guess again. It’s more that the DoD part of government actually is big-boned, and what looks like fat is more of a system bloat that needs to be restructured, which doesn’t happen simply by starvation.

Here’s a rough example of what I mean: spending money has a huge overhead of paperwork. One of the reasons for this is that government employees need to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars they get, so there are a whole bunch of rules to follow to make sure money is not mishandled. But all of the paperwork and regulations make the process inefficient, which wastes taxpayer dollars. However, nobody is willing to streamline the process, because eventually there will be some misuse of funds (or even just something that has an appearance of impropriety), and too many members of congress, and the general population, will go absolutely apeshit over the revelation. So we spend many dollars in order to safeguard fewer dollars. That’s a systemic problem, and not one that can be solved simply by reducing budget.

But my creeping malaise seems to be somewhat better now that the end of furloughs is in sight, even though the larger sequester problem still exists. I had joined a colleague in meaningless protest by not shaving (anywhere). He started while I was on vacation, so I got a late start, but even the shorter duration doesn’t change the fact that I had one of the worst beards grown by anyone of drinking age. Glad to be rid of the non-goatee portion of it.

What Do You Mean, No Gender Bias in Physics?

I ran across Zapperz’s post Physics Departments Without A Single Female Faculty Member yesterday, and made a comment on the blog. Today I see that Chad has a post up, Baseball and Gender Bias: “Number of Women in Physics Departments: A Simulation Analysis “, which exceeds anything I would have said, had I cobbled together a post.

Which is not to say I would have, because this is the sort of subject where some scientist readers stop acting like scientists, in terms of data interpretation and/or reading comprehension. This was a narrowly-defined analysis, based on a specific premise. As Chad puts it

They have assumed a particular gender distribution among the imaginary faculty pool in their simulation, which matches the gender distribution of the real sample– 16% of the bachelor’s-only faculty are female and 11% of the Ph.D.-granting pool. That’s descriptive, not prescriptive

IOW, they used the actual gender ratios we have, because that’s what we have — nobody has said this is good, or appropriate. It’s not an endorsement. It also doesn’t say that there is no discrimination going on.

This is Not Leading, So Get Out of the Way

Mandating Scientific Discovery Never Works

The history of science is replete with unexpected discoveries with profoundly important effects. The World Wide Web was not developed to address a public need but to help physicists communicate at a high-energy physics laboratory engaged in esoteric studies of the fundamental structure of matter. Theoretical studies of the nature of light emitted by hot objects ended up leading to the development of quantum mechanics, which describes the weird behavior of electrons in atoms. In the process, it led to the development of transistors and all the modern electronics on which modern computers and our information economy is based.

IOW, what works best is letting scientists investigate the area(s) of interest to them. Enough of what they find will be useful to us all, somehow.

Don’t Worship at the Altar, Because It Doesn’t Exist

Challenge, don’t worship, the chiefs and high priestesses of science

This is a piece from the Guardian published last week, and I was intrigued: I perk up a bit whenever I see a mention of high priests or priestesses, or any intimation of science as a religion. Such a straw man is often a beacon that crackpottery is nearby.

Science today, and the way we share it with the rest of the world, is based on layers upon layers of deference. We spend our lives crawling up to senior scientists, and those who pay them, sitting and waiting to be told what to think. We shouldn’t be so complacent.

I agree with the conclusion, though not for the same reason the author does. Yes, by all means do not be complacent when it comes to scientific result — go out and get some science education, if you don’t have it. Because that’s the only weapon you have against having to trust someone else to interpret some scientific finding. I would absolutely love it if people could think for themselves about this. The problem that we have today is that people don’t go down that path. They simply choose to trust someone else (often someone with a political agenda) to do the interpretation. Science is not challenged, and the problem of people not thinking for themselves hasn’t gone away.

The problem is that science literacy isn’t going to completely solve the issue. You aren’t going to become an expert on a subject. What literacy allows is a chance to filter the bogus claims and spot the con artists in the discussion. It will help you identify whom to trust.

The author then goes on to tie this in with the deficit model, and I think that’s a reach. The deficit model isn’t correct. It’s been found that in issues like climate change and evolution, the problem in convincing more people is not that the proper information isn’t being conveyed. But that’s only part of the audience — the ones who have already substituted some ideology that drives their acceptance of facts. The deficit model isn’t completely wrong, because if it was, nobody would ever learn anything. Schools would be useless, and we know they are not. People do learn science in schools. It’s just not in play once people have some kind of emotional attachment to an answer.

But deference is certainly not the issue for peopler who are claiming that global warming is a hoax or that evolution is obviously wrong. Some of the arguments put forth to buttress those claims boil down to a premise that scientists are idiots, which is pretty far from being deferential.

I also worry that the author is selling us short on having people “challenge” rather than “unquestionably listen”. I don’t think anyone is proposing the latter or denying the former. However, a challenge has to have some validity to it. It can’t simply be a roadblock from a crowd who, despite not knowing much about the science, somehow know that it’s wrong.

Then we get to this:

When I was looking into the Big Bang Fair last term, I learned that volunteers were briefed not to get pulled into debating “politics” of arms dealing or the fossil fuel industry, lest it distracted from the science. I’ve since heard similar briefings have been issued for science events running over the summer. It’s also a line I heard all too often when I worked at Imperial College.

It’s bullshit. Simple bullshit. Politics doesn’t distract from the science. An over-emphasis on decontextualised science is used to distract from the politics.

There’s some bullshit there, that’s for sure. Science has an impact on politics, to be sure, and science will always involve people, which has ramifications, but the way nature behaves — which is what science investigates — is not political. If it’s true, it’s going to be true whether you are a conservative or a liberal. There is no Republican version of the laws of thermodynamics*, or a variant of relativity that only works for Democrats.

One might question the naiveté of a statement such as that, when we’ve just heard from politicians in both the US and Canadian governments about how they want to interject themselves further into the process. That, on top of the usual background noise of politicians grousing about teaching evolution, or that global warming is a hoax, and threats and attacks on scientists doing that kind of research. Politics doesn’t distract from the science? Really?

* No legitimate version. I’m aware of Conservapedia.

Canada, What Were You Thinking?

Canada Sells Out Science

[T]he National Research Council—the Canadian scientific research and development agency—has now said that they will only perform research that has “social or economic gain”.

John MacDougal, President of the NRC, literally said, “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value”.

I’m incredibly sad to read this. I worked at TRIUMF in Vancouver for about 2.5 years as a postdoc, and I did witness some bureaucratic beancounter nonsense, but nothing like this.

Phil’s take on this is spot-on. But beyond saying that research pays off, making this policy short-sighted, is the fact that in basic research, you don’t truly know what you’re going to find! That’s what this research is — an attempt at discovering the unknown. There is no way to guarantee some kind of specific commercial benefit from the undiscovered, but the point of funding discovery is that someone will eventually think of ways to exploit newly-found knowledge! Overall, there will be economic gain as a result — that’s the way it has been for a long time. There’s no reason to think this has suddenly stopped.

The Worst Idea in the Sad, Long History of Bad Ideas

This is even worse than thinking about taking dinosaurs off of Isla Sorna.

U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants

The new chairman of the House science committee has drafted a bill that, in effect, would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a set of funding criteria chosen by Congress. For good measure, it would also set in motion a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by every other federal science agency.

Funding criteria chosen by the Republican congress, many of whom wouldn’t know good science if it bit them on the ass, and belittle any science they don’t understand or whose conclusions are disagreeable to their ideology. Which is most science.

Why is it Out of Reach?

Science outreach: the forgotten victim of the sequester

NASA’s decision to suspend its education and public outreach programs is questionable. However, what is most concerning about this move is what it could mean for the future of science in the United States. What if these cuts become blueprint for future budget cuts? What if other agencies follow suit?

One question is “why cut outreach?” An obvious answer is “because it’s there.” If the question is decided by people only looking at this year’s bottom line, it becomes like deferring maintenance: a quick fix to a budget cut, and one that has no obvious, immediate adverse impact. All the bad news happens much later. Think about changing the oil in your car — it almost never has to be done now, and not doing it keeps money in your pocket, but if you delay it long enough it will cost you. As long as there are people focused only on the near-term making the decisions, this is the kind of thing that will get cut. It leads to a nasty feedback loop if it continues.

However, as I have written before, it’s a better tactical decision than making cuts that are less visible, but equally damaging in the long run. Public outrage, properly aimed, can be helpful.

There’s one other thing that I thought of after reading about this. There were articles I read just after the Navy’s sequester announcements came out, where the authors called the decision to delay deployment of a carrier group a stunt. The thing is, you can’t really deploy only part of a battle group — it’s all or nothing. If you cut out a few ships, you put the whole group at risk, because they all have their jobs. Similarly, you can’t launch only part of a NASA mission, and cutting a mission is probably way too large of a cut, if we assume this is a short-term problem. I suspect that unlike delaying a deployment, temporarily delaying a mission that’s in development wouldn’t save much money — you still have to pay people, and if you cut off other purchases, you’ll be paying them to play games on their computer rather than work.

If you do cut a mission, you may never get the same opportunity for it. Once projects are canceled, people move on to other work and you might never again be able to assemble the team. Any subsequent attempt will invariably have to recreate some (much?) of the work, which is a waste.

As much as this hurts, I think that treating it as a very public event, and treating it initially as a one-time problem is the best position to take. If it makes you mad, good! It should make you mad. Write to your congresscritters and let them know.

Bad News on the Doorstep

Joe over at It’s Okay to be Smart, hates waking up to bad news, in this case the news that NASA is dialing back some of their outreach due to sequestration budget cuts. I have already noted that the GOP was shocked, shocked! that the White House was canceling tours so that they could deploy secret service agents, and that (IMO) the Smithsonian was making a tactical mistake by hiding the effect of their cuts and crippling their future.

While I hate to see it happen, I think it’s the proper course of action, so that the voters can see the effect of a dysfunctional congress.

Don’t Buy the Illusion

Canceled White House tours, not projected job losses, cause uproar

I’m not sure what’s going on in the head of a person who thinks that White House tours are more important than other duties of government personnel; in this case it’s secret service agents who would be used on other posts to cut back on overtime, or possibly fill in in more important duties if agents are furloughed.

I think that trying to hide the effects of the sequester is a mistake, as the Smithsonian is doing. By keeping normal hours and cutting other expenses, the public gets the impression that the sequester is no big deal. This is short-sighted, though. You can appear to save money by not changing the oil in your car, too, but eventually it costs you more than the savings. This is not business as usual, and I think it’s a mistake to present that facade.

“The Rich Survive and the Poor Get Devastated”

There Should Be Grandeur: Basic Science in the Shadow of the Sequester

So, add that up: sequester cuts will strike bluntly across the scientific community. The illustrious can move a bit of money around, but even in large labs, a predictable result will be a reduction in the number of graduate student and post – doc slots available — and as those junior and early-stage researchers do a whole lot of the at-the-bench level research, such cuts will have an immediate effect on research productivity.

The longer term risk is obvious too: fewer students and post-docs mean on an ongoing drop from baseline in the amount of work to be done year over year, and given that industry has reduced its demand for research-trained Ph.Ds, a plausible consequence is that some, many perhaps, those with capacity to do leading edge science — no dummies they — will simply never enter the pipeline, shifting instead to some other career that does not demand six years and more of poorly paid training to find that there are no jobs.

From my perspective as a government scientist I have not been able to delve into this discussion in this way for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I don’t write as well as Tom Levenson, for which I not embarrassed, but also because I get incredibly pissed off at the stupidity, and repeatedly cursing at that isn’t very productive. Or eloquent. The thing is, the sequester isn’t a good situation suddenly gone bad. The dis-functionality of my government has been an impediment, to varying degrees, for a number of years now.

From a personal perspective it sucks: I’ve not had a cost-of-living adjustment in three years now, and now I am facing a furlough plan of 20% — not working one day a week. Plans are sketchy at this point, so it’s not clear what the details are on that; it’s possible that a poorly thought-out plan would have workers in a group taking different days off, with the intention of still having an “office presence” (one rumored scenario) but meaning that collaborations are hindered far beyond a 20% reduction in productivity, since there are at least 2 days a week a pair can’t work together. Too early to tell if things will be made even worse in this way. Murphy, however, is always lurking.

From a lab perspective, not having defined spending plans have hurt for quite some time — even operating under a continuing resolution has hampered things. Uncertain and uneven funding is a problem — you really want that new Thingerdoodle™ for the lab, and while it’s expensive — let’s say it costs 10% of your budget — you could afford it if you were given your promised allocation. However, you can’t when the money is portioned out over a shorter time scale. If you get a monthly release of your money, you never have enough to make the purchase. If you get a larger chunk but still only part of the budget, you risk running out of money for your day-to-day needs. And if you try and save it up, someone might see that you have not been spending as fast as you claimed you would, and you run the risk of someone taking it away from you. meanwhile, progress in the lab is limited from lack of a Thingerdoodle™.

The time compression of getting the full budget is also a problem. Let’s say you spend a few months on a CR, or in sequester mode, and then everything is resolved. But then, even if you have more money, you have to spend it before the end of the fiscal year or some other deadline, and spending money wisely takes time. Meaning you aren’t in the lab because you’re on the web or the phone, figuring out the right widgets to buy. Not being in the lab means the experiments are on hold, and that’s not the most efficient way to run things.

Basically, both feast and famine slow you down.

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