Tag Archives: Science

Who cares about science?

Too bad.

One of the most self-damning flaws of scientific research is that, except in the rarest of cases, you don’t get to see the true impact of your current work until much, much later in life. Still. How awesome would it be to be Tim Berners-Lee right now? “I invented the Internet.” Or Thomas Edison: “I invented the light bulb.” Or Freud: “I invented sexy thoughts.”

Take Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web. Back in 1989, computers were clunky, command-line interfaces that couldn’t talk to each other, at least not in any significant way. Sir Tim Berners-Lee changed that. As a young scientist at CERN, he saw an opportunity to combine existing computer networking protocols—the Internet—with the newfangled concept of hypertext, and out popped the World Wide Web—the “Internet.” Now, at age 56, Berners-Lee gets industry awards, a knighthood, honorary doctorates left and right—but not enough to inspire the masses. Those who lack in age rarely recognize their deficiency, and the promise of unlimited speaking engagements at universities and conferences 20 years down the line won’t push today’s teenagers from TVs to test tubes. Maybe the prospect of being knighted will do the trick. But I doubt it. If professions were subject to natural selection, researchers would be extinct, for an ironic lack of reproducibility.

Other technical people are generally a bit quicker than the public to catch on to the significance of a scientific breakthrough—surprise—but even so, it’s only within the scientific community—a tiny fraction of it at that—that any such recognition resonates. Maybe that’s why relatively few young Americans today are excited about research. They don’t care about recognition from the scientific community—why should they? From the outside looking in, the community is small, quirky, and rarely produces a viral YouTube video or Top 10 hit.

While science only brings forever-delayed gratification, working at Apple, Google, or Intel lets you to point to an iPhone or new search feature or computer and say “I created that”—sure, with 100 other people, but what of it? Siri’s still pretty damn cool. Our current Internet-dominated era has that advantage, twofold: Anyone can learn to program and create an iPhone app or website—low barrier to creation—and anyone can find their work going viral via YouTube or Reddit—low barrier to recognition. It’s a simple feedback cycle—create, be recognized for creation—and few can resist its temptations. It’s hard to overstate how good it feels to be able to say “I created that”—for many people, it makes all the hard work worth it. That’s what drives them to work late nights and weekends. That’s what makes them say, “I love my job!” and truly mean it.

But imagine going to Google to work on Android, then finding out after a year on the job that it won’t be released for 20 more years, and even then with only 10% probability. You’ll have to wait two decades before anyone knows what the hell you’re talking about: “Hold on… You make androids? Is that ethical?” Until then, it’s all blank stares and polite smiles and changed subjects. I mean, it sure does look promising, but can I get it on Amazon?

Read any popular science article: “Scientists warned, ‘This is an extremely promising breakthrough, but it’s at least 5-10 years away from commercial deployment'” (see ScienceDaily or MIT’s Technology Review for more egregious real-world examples). And while it may be honest science journalism, Teenage Me hears that and thinks, “10 years—that’s half my life! Where did I put that Google offer letter?” That’s the burden of the scientific profession, the psychological barrier to entry that pushes many away from research careers, perhaps after a first unfulfilling undergrad research experience where feedback was lacking and progress was uncertain.

So what can we do about it?

Universities can encourage faculty and graduate students to take extended leave from their home institutions to work in the private sector, to start companies, to get involved in public policy. Research institutions can raise salaries for research scientists and other technical staff. Researchers can eradicate the academic superiority complex.

Government can fund more research, more education, more graduate and postdoctoral fellowships. Forward-thinking politicians can create more research jobs that don’t require a PhD.

The rest of us can learn some science—not Alka-Seltzer volcanoes and Coke-and-Mentos science, but real-world stuff: climate change, battery technology, the power grid, the Internet, DNA, neuroscience, medical imaging, computer hardware, energy conversion, programming, electric cars, wireless communications. We can figure out how the world around us works. It’s not magic, and when more than just technology creators understand how stuff works—when technology users get it too—innovative ideas emerge organically.

Science seems to be content with enabling, not creating, future technology. And that’s OK—the future is built on scientific progress. But the engineer in me can’t accept that. As a researcher in semiconductor devices, I straddle physics and chemistry and materials science and electrical engineering, and I can’t possibly divorce the science from the applications and still stay motivated enough to keep working on it. The thought of spending my life working on something that will never see the light of day—literally—terrifies me, and not a single day passes in which I don’t think about how I can best contribute—not just to my field, as is the nominal goal of the PhD, but to our daily lives.

Although the ivy has receded, particularly at startup-friendly institutions like Stanford and Berkeley and MIT, there’s still an unacceptably large divide between academic research and industry, between basic science and applied technology. We need researchers who are as comfortable talking to politicians and electricians and farmers as to colleagues and science reporters and the ever vague and ill-defined “general public.” We need researchers who can and will bring to market the incredible world-changing potential that every journal paper promises. And we need non-researchers—entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians—who innovate like researchers: logically, relentlessly, radically.

That could be you.

When you think about who you want to be when you grow up, imagine telling your kids in 30 years: “I made you AND the world you live in.” Take that, Freud.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , ,

Letter to Congress

Take a second to sign this letter to Congress in support of continued funding for scientific research. It’s worth it.

-Joel


THE LETTER

To: The United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction

Dear Member:

America’s science and engineering graduate students need your help. Our country is on the precipice: with US finances in a desperate position, upcoming decisions will determine the shape of our nation for decades to come. We urge you to seek common ground in Congress to preserve the indispensable investments in science and engineering research that will drive our nation’s prosperity for generations. We urge you to avoid any cuts in federally funded research.

We could reiterate that scientific progress and technological innovation have kept the US at the head of the global economy for over half a century. We could remind you that rapid changes in health technology, information security, globalization, communications, artificial intelligence, and advanced materials make scientific and technological progress more critical than ever. We could warn you that our global competitors are ramping up investments in research and development, inspired by our own rise to economic superpower. But all this is well established[1][2][3][4][5][6]. Instead, we’d like to discuss a crucial element of research funding that is often overlooked: human capital.

Over half a million graduate students and postdoctoral associates study science and engineering in the US[7]. These researchers form the bedrock labor force of the world’s best university R&D community. The value of these graduate students is not limited to the experiments they run and the papers they publish. Researchers in science and engineering learn to develop and implement long-term strategies, monitor progress, adapt to unexpected findings, evaluate their work and others’, collaborate across disciplines, acquire new skills, and communicate to a wide audience. Scientists and engineers don’t just get good jobs; they create good jobs, enabling their employers to produce the innovative products and services that drive our economic growth. Every science and engineering graduate represents a high-return investment in human capital, one impossible without federal support.

Federal research funding is essential to graduate education because research is our education. Over 60% of university research is federally funded; private industry, although it dominates the development stage, accounts for only 6% of university research[8]. America must remain competitive in the global economy, and we cannot hope to do that by paying the lowest wages. We will never win a race to the bottom. Instead, we must innovate, and train the next generation of innovators. Innovation drives 60% of US growth[9]. Economists estimate that if our economy grew just half a percent faster than forecast for 20 years, the country would face half the deficit cutting it faces today[10].

Does federal research funding promote innovative technology and groundbreaking scientific progress? Absolutely. It also provides our economy with the most versatile, skilled, motivated, and creative workers in the world. We graduate students understand the severity of the fiscal crisis facing our country. Our sleeves are rolled up; we’re ready to be part of the solution. But we need your help. Congress’s goal in controlling our deficit is to protect America’s future prosperity; healthy federal research funding is essential to that prosperity. In the difficult months ahead, we ask you to look to the future and protect our crucial investments in R&D.

Sincerely,

America’s Science and Engineering Graduate Students

[1] National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine: Rising Above the Gathering Storm http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11463

[2] National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine: Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12999

[3] National Science Board: Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/sei/

[4] American Association for the Advancement of Science: The US Research and Development Investment http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/presentations/

[5] National Science Foundation: Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010 http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind10/

[6] American Association for the Advancement of Science et al.: Letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction http://www.aau.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=12780

[7] National Science Foundation: Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf11311/

[8] National Science Foundation: Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010, page 5-14 http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind10/

[9] Robert M. Solow (Prof. of Economics, MIT), Growth Theory, An Exposition (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, Oxford, 2nd edition 2000), pp. ix-xxvi (Nobel Prize Lecture, Dec. 8, 1987)

[10] David Leonhardt, “One Way to Trim the Debt, Cultivate Growth”, NY Times, Nov. 10, 2010 (see also work by economists Alan Auerbach and William Gale)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,