News from Inside Higher Ed: Apparently there's a movement afoot in U.S. colleges and universities to add math requirements and add "quantitative reasoning" content to non-mathematics courses. You might guess, from my post on the "who needs algebra" column, that I view this as a good thing. And you'd be right.
Archive for: February, 2006
My ScienceBlogs sibling Kevin Vranes asks an interesting question (and provides some useful facts for thinking about the answer):
Why do we even spend taxpayer money on basic science research? Is it to fund science for discovery's sake alone? Or to meet an array of identified societal needs?
The original post-WWII Vannevar Bush model was that the feds give money to the scientists for basic research, the scientists decide how to allocate that money, and society gets innumerable benefits, even if a direct link can't be made between individual projects and economic growth.
But it turns out that of all the American taxpayer cash spent on S&T R&D, only a small portion goes to the agencies engaged in basic science research. About 55% goes to defense R&D and 20% to NIH (see chart). The National Science Foundation, the flagship of basic research for the U.S. government, gets only 3% of all federal R&D funds.
The first thing to notice is that we taxpayers aren't spending all that much on basic research. So quit telling the guy down the street with the NSF grant that he's working for you. Most of what we're funding, based on these numbers, is the defense of our bodies by modern medicine and the military. (Yes, there's maybe some offense in the defense R&D.)
But the more interesting question, to my mind, is whether there are persuasive reasons for funding more basic research than we do -- or, for that matter, for funding it all all.
Student Pugwash USA, whose mission is to promote social responsibility in science and technology, is having the first of a series of regional conferences March 31 - April 1 at Purdue University. (Other conferences are planned at Rockeller University, Carnegie Mellon, and UC-Berkeley.) The conference is aimed at (and open to) science students of all disciplines (including policy and philosophy of science). The focus of the Purdue Pugwash Regional Conference is scientific integrity in the pharmaceutical industry, and the keynote speaker is Dr. Arden Bement, Director of the National Science Foundation.
Here's the preliminary schedule:
A friend who has been lurking here sent me an email the other day to get my take on the apparent attitude of American scientists toward stem cell research and toward the American public. My friend writes that he has been struck by the reaction of scientists in discussion of stem cell research that
"Gee, I just can't understand what all the fuss is about -- this is just research! The scientists in Europe are all laughing at us, because they just don't understand what all the controversy is about! We're losing ground and falling behind!" and so on.
Now, I don't have a settled view about the various uses of stem cells. But I guess that I'm baffled by those scientists' bafflement. They seem to think that it's completely mysterious that people (many, but not all, of whom are motivated by their interpretations of their religious faith) would actually think that their ethical values should constrain their technological/scientific endeavors. Have I simply misperceived what those scientists are saying, do you think? Or is there some naive sort of view that their research really is ethically neutral, and that the real problem is with the people who insist on "politicizing" a perfectly legitimate undertaking? Or is it something else?
While I make no claims to be able to get into anyone else's head (heck, some days my own is hard enough to access), I have some guesses about what's going on here.
Yesterday, I discussed what scientists supported by federal funds do, and do not, owe the public. However, that discussion was sufficiently oblique and ironic that the point I was trying to make may not have been clear (and, I may have put some of my male readers at greater risk for heart attack).
So, I'm turning off the irony and giving it another try.
The large question I want to examine is just what publicly-funded scientists owe the public. Clearly, they owe the public something, but is it the thing that Dean Esmay is suggesting that the public is owed?
I don't know how we're doing closing the digital divide between rich and poor, but it looks like the divide between humans and cats is getting narrower.
I'm pretty sure the moment when every cat has a webpage of his or her own is one of the early signs of the apocalypse.
Michael Berube is a noted danger to the youth of America (and has the votes to prove it). He is also, it turns out, blogging about ethical issues in the practice of science.
Which, last time I checked with the Central Committee of Academic Mind-Control, was my turf. I trust that Comrade Berube will reflect upon this, and on the cult of personality that seems to be growing around him, during the weekend self-criticism session.
Interloper or not, he does have some useful observations about the right relationship between the people's scientists and the people's government.
For those of you readers in the San Francisco Bay Area:
The Synopsys Silicon Valley Science and Technology Championship is coming up (March 8-9) at the McEnery Covention Center in San Jose. Not only are they looking for volunteers, but they are especially in need of judges. (At this point, they have almost 800 projects entered and just over 200 judges.)
The judging takes place March 9, during the day (11:30 am - 4:30 pm). I've judged in this fair before and it's a great experience. The kids are very enthusiastic about science, and about what they've learned in their projects. Judges who are clearly engaged in their projects amplify this enthusiasm like you wouldn't believe. The people I've met judging have been a fun bunch, too -- working and retired scientists in industry, professors and postdocs, a full range of science-savvy grown-ups who still have their childlike fascination with science. And, if you judge, they feed you lunch.
If you think (or even suspect) you have the mad science skillz to help with the judging, do consider signing up to be a judge. It will mean a lot to the kids, and you'll have a blast.
UPDATE: Information about science fairs in other regions in the comments. If you'd like to add information about a fair in your regions, go right ahead.
As expected, Derek Lowe has a thoughful post (with a very interesting discussion going on in the comments) about the latest "Expression of Concern" from the New England Journal of Medicine about the VIGOR Vioxx trial.
To catch you up if you've been watching curling rather than following the case: A clinical study of Vioxx was performed, resulting in a manuscript submitted to NEJM by 13 authors (11 academics and two scientists employed by Merck). The study was looking at whether adverse gastrointestinal events were correlated to taking Vioxx. During the course of the study, other events in participants (including cardiovascular events) were also tracked. The point of contention is that there were three heart attacks among study participants that happened before the official ending date for the study, and were known to the authors before the paper was published in NEJM, but that were left out of the data presented in the paper that was published. NEJM has identified this as a problem. While not coming out and saying, "Looky here, scumbag pharamceutical company trimming the data to sell more Vioxx, patient safety be damned!" that's a conclusion people might be tempted to draw here.
But, as Derek points out, it's not that simple.
A conversation while driving:
Elder offspring: On library day this week, I got a book called Endangered Desert Animals. Desert animals are really cool.
Dr. Free-Ride: What do you think is coolest about desert animals?
Elder offspring: They can go for a long time without drinking any water at all. Some of them get their water by munching on tasty cactus flowers.
Dr. Free-Ride: That's true, animals who live in the desert need to be able to get what they need from the desert, and there isn't much water there. I think I remember, when I was about your age, reading about kangaroo rats living in the desert. They have to get all their water from the seeds they eat, and if I remember correctly, their pee has so little water in it that it comes out as crystals.
Elder offspring: Weird!
Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah.
Elder offspring: There are so many neat desert animals -- gila monsters, bats, scorpions, dromedaries and bactrian camels, bandicoots --
Dr. Free-Ride: Wait, are bandicoots really desert animals?