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Refashioning American science

The US science funding cuts revealed in last year’s omnibus bill were a terrific blow to US physicists, with Fermilab in particular being forced to lay-off 200 of its staff. If it doesn’t recover, the US might find that key research and development institutions begin to settle elsewhere. “It takes something like the race to the Moon to open up the coffers,” lamented Robert Rosner, Director of Argonne National Laboratory, at a press breakfast this morning.

Rosner was appealing to the media to help the public see the benefit of physics research because, he said, they are not so good at it on their own. Many important discoveries in physics, from the transistor to the internet, only became widely adopted after a long period of development. “But culture is impatient,” he noted. The question is how to convey to a public accustomed to instant gratification the need to be patient in science.

Another problem in Rosner’s eyes is the poor demographic involved in science education. Most university students are Caucasian males, despite them comprising a smaller and smaller cross-section of the population. This might be because of the “nerdy” image of science, which only seems to disappear in extraordinary circumstances such as the launch of Russia’s Sputnik I 50 years ago. Or it might be that scientists receive poor compensation for their efforts, compared with, say, doctors.

Unlike the past, when the US would enjoy brain-draining scientists from abroad, today sees fewer top scientists migrating to the country. Rosner thinks this is because of the difficulty in getting a work visa, and a lack of clear economic incentives. For global institutions, he calls science a “meritocracy”: they take root where the talent is.

Rosner’s presentation echoed feelings from yesterday’s symposium on the media’s coverage of climate change, namely that the best way — if the only way — to persuade the government and the public about the merit of scientific research is through the media. At the symposium, John Holdren of Harvard Univerity pointed out that the erstwhile British prime minister Margaret Thatcher only became convinced of the importance of the environmental cause after she was lumbered with a pile of New Scientist magazines to take on holiday.

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