• U.S. needs scientific boost
    September 15,2008
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    Two things happened earlier in the month that, taken together, clearly spell out why America is doomed if we don't correct our course as a society.

    In Switzerland on Sept. 10, an international group of scientists powered up the largest physics experiment in history, the Large Hadron Collider, at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, best known by its French initials).

    A week earlier, in Minneapolis, Minn., the GOP celebrated the nomination of a candidate for vice president who not only doesn't believe in basic science, she celebrates the fact. It is in fact part of her charm, for the party's core right-wing base.

    It follows two terms for a president who publicly rejects signs of intelligence as "elitism." Bizarrely, that's one of the talking points in the 2008 presidential campaign from many of the same people who blame America's academic shortcomings on teachers' unions and public schools.

    Completion of the Large Hadron Collider signaled not only the first attempt to replicate the conditions in the seconds immediately after the Big Bang at the start of the universe, but a significant step in America abandoning its role as the preeminent scientific community in the world.

    CERN and the U.S. military are the agencies most responsible for the Internet, but it would have happened without any input from us. It's a good example of how things are funded differently here and elsewhere. CERN is designed and funded for "pure" research, whereas scientific funding in the U.S. is increasingly dependent upon expectations of direct military and/or economic benefit.

    Why should we spend money helping the world's physics community understand how the universe began billions of years ago when millions of voters believe it sprang up miraculously some 5,000 years ago, based on a literal reading of the "begats" in the Old Testament?

    It is profoundly important in a free society to respect an individual's belief in the Bible; it just happens to be a lousy cornerstone for formulating a science program.

    Increasingly, our on-again, off-again support for long-term commitments is pushing American involvement in major scientific efforts to one side. Why should Europe, China, Japan or India choose us as a partner when they know we're unlikely to see a 10- or 20-year project through?

    Under President Bush, the United States famously refused to honor international treaty obligations including the Kyoto Protocol; less notoriously but equally seriously, we also pulled out of another major scientific project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, following a budget dust-up between the administration and Congress.

    According to a Christian Science Monitor article on the Large Hadron Collider quoting David Goldston, a visiting lecturer at Harvard University who specializes in science policy, "The U.S. has had the lead in facilities for a long time; now it won't." He pointed out that America's top particle accelerators, at Stanford and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., are either closed or closing.

    At no time in history has humanity been more reliant on scientific knowledge. Virtually everything we touch is the result of human engineering, from safe drinking water to the light switch on the wall to most of our foods. Even organic foods are the result of generations of farmers selectively breeding and planting to improve their output. The biological mechanism that allows generational improvement of crops to work is evolution, a concept which over half the American public does not believe in, including Sarah Palin.

    The light of science switched on in Switzerland this month; increasingly that light is going out in America.
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