Monday, April 25, 2005

Science as competition

Mark over at Orange Quark has some interesting stuff to say about science and what is going on in the US right now.

I should say explicitly that I agree with him that the combative implications of "dominance" or "leadership" are missing the point, 400 years of enlightenment should have taught us that co-operation and synergistic play is a win-win game in science; but, it is a convenient shortcut to the emotionally loaded issue of where good science is getting done.

The US is not yet in serious trouble, but it is getting there. Here is a paper on this from WTEC, presented at an EU meeting - EU DGXII worries about this a lot; one of its missions is to make the EU collectively a lead or level player in all important scientific fields.
To summarise, the EU collectively now outproduces the US in science, and leading indicators suggest EU to be level or leading in anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 of science and tech sub-fields. Whereas by the same metrics they were competitive in 0-15% of sub-fields only a decade ago. EU still lags the US in lagging indicators (like Nobel prizes).

So what? Well, my personal take on the issue was whether this is driving a reverse flow of personnel back to Europe. I still see that happening at some level, anecdotally, with a potential to accelerate sharply given a modest nudge.

Sharp funding cutbacks for more than 1 year will drive postdocs and tenure-track faculty back, and cut-off the inflow of fresh PhD postdocs.
The catastrophically bad Detp Comm. policy proposed would cut-off half of incoming graduate students in physical sciences, math, comp sci and engineering.
If the various "Intelligent Design" or "Academic Freedom" measures pass, then a lot of people are going to be searching their conscience and contemplating whether feeding kids and paying mortgages is worth their integrity and professional honour. Some will stay, there is real life to deal with; some will swallow their pride, some will fight in place, but a lot, particularly the younger ones, will say "sod it" and go somewhere greener. Even a year ago I could never have seen myself saying this, but if some of the measures threatened by some political factions are actually passed and put into effect, then the US could see a science exodus not seen since 1930s Germany. This makes me sad, and a little bit frightened. I hope I am just being paranoid, but some people seem to have forgotten how modern society came about. You can't have all the toys and suppress science and liberal intelligentsia. Been tried, don't work.

Oh, and there's practical basics; like the US political dominance hinges on research done post-WWII. This is now being rolled back relatively speaking. There's still maybe a decade of technological leadership in some fields, especially defence related; but even though defence R&D line budgets are growing, looking at the details, the research is shrinking, and a lot of the "development" is really hacking buggy procurement prototypes.
"You snooze, you lose".

The US is close to losing a good part of its commercial technological advantage, which hinges on publicly funded research done 10+ years ago. The US could also lost its military technological edge. Politicians need to stop treating the world like it was a Clancy novel and think a little bit about what their experts are trying to tell them. Reality will trump faith every time.


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