Monday, April 12, 2010

Culture: Losing Science

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I often cite Russia as the potential future of the United States if corporatist policies are allowed to dominate by both conservatives and liberals. The economic problems in Russia are not so much socialist policies--though the government has a close hand in many companies--as they are problems of lack of competition. Because large companies--usually backed by the government--so dominate market segments, there's really no chance at innovation by small companies; they would be crushed by the dominant companies.

Whether one believes that as a possible future in the United States or not, there's a new cautionary tale out of Russia. The Christian Science Monitor noted in a recent article that scientific research in Russia has slowed significantly. The amount of peer-reviewed papers being published by Russian authors is now not much more than one-tenth of that of the United States, less than one-third of that of China.

While lack of government funding has driven the decline in scientific output, with Russia allocating about 2% as much money as the US (on that basis, their output actually looks quite good!) for scientific research. However, the article points out that the problem is much deeper. Andre Ionin is quoted in the article as saying "the profession of scientist is not prestigious anymore, and the government does not define scientific tasks that would attract talented people." Only 1.6% of Russian students viewed science as a worthwhile career in a 2006 survey.

The money has not dried up in the United States yet, but it seems to me that the social standing of scientists and engineers has fallen. I won't rehash my own experience of watching my peers decide to pursue other professions after getting an advanced degree. Some--though certainly not all--TEA party activists have included scientists as part of the government workforce that "wastes their tax dollars," usually in the context of climate change research, the most common thing they call "junk science." Mainstream media have laid off their science reporters as they have slashed spending in general.

The Obama administration has been increasing science funding. However, as of yet there is no race-to-the-moon-style reason for the general public to get excited by science. Until we have reason to believe, like Bill Nye the Science Guy, that "science is cool," there is always the danger that the United States is just one unsympathetic administration away from heading down the road that Russia has gone in science.

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