Research Political Issues

I’ve avoided discussing politics here, although not for lack of interest. The problem with discussing politics is that it’s customary for people to say much based upon little information. Nevertheless, politics can have a substantial impact on science (and we might hope for the vice-versa). It’s primary election time in the United States, so the topic is timely, although the issues are not.

There are several policy decisions which substantially effect development of science and technology in the US.

  1. Education The US has great contrasts in education. The top universities are very good places, yet the grade school education system produces mediocre results. For me, the contrast between a public education and Caltech was bracing. For many others attending Caltech, it clearly was not. Upgrading the k-12 education system in the US is a long-standing chronic problem which I know relatively little about. My own experience is that a basic attitude of “no child unrealized” is better than “no child left behind”. A fair claim can also be made that the US just doesn’t invest enough.
  2. Respect Lack of respect for science and technology is routinely expressed in many ways in the US.
    1. The most bald form of lack of respect is scientific censorship. This may be easily understood as a generality: you choose to spend a large fraction of your life learning to interpret some part of the world. After years, you come to some conclusion about the nature of the world. Then, someone with no particular experience or expertise tells you to alter it.
    2. A more refined form of lack of respect is simply lack of presence in decision making. This isn’t necessarily intentional: many people simply make decisions from the gut, and then come up with reasons to justify their decision. This style explicitly cuts out the deep thinking of science. Many policies could have been better informed by a serious consideration of even basic science:
      1. The oil of Iraq is fundamentally less valuable if we are going to tackle global warming.
      2. Swapping gasoline for hydrogen-based transportable energy source is dubious because it introduces another energy storage conversion to lose energy on. The same goes for swapping bioethanol for gasoline. In contrast, hybrid and electric vehicles actually recover substantial energy from regenerative braking, and a plug-in hybrid could run off electricity in typical commuter usage.
      3. The Space Shuttle is a boondoggle design. The rocket equation implies that the ratio of initial to final mass for vehicles reaching earth orbit must be at least a factor of e2.5 (it’s actually e2.93 for the Space Shuttle). Making the system reusable implies that most of this mass returns to earth so the payload deliverable into space is only 1.2% of the liftoff mass. A better designed system might deliver payloads a factor of 4 larger or be much smaller.
      4. Passenger Inspections at airports is another poor policy from the perspective of science. It isn’t effective, and there is no cost-efficient way to make it effective against a motivated opponent. Solid evidence for this is the continued use of mules to smuggle drugs. The basic problem from a chemistry point of view is that too much can be done with a small amount of mass. Deterrence and limitation (armored cockpits and active resistance for example) are fine policies.
    3. Lack of support. The simplest form of lack of respect is simply lack of support. The case for federal vs corporate funding of basic science and technology development is very simple: the benefit to society of conducting such work dramatically exceeds the benefit any one agent within society (such as a company) could gain from it. Of late, investment in core science has been an anemic 0.0005 GDP and visa issues hamstring broader technology development.
  3. Confidence This is primarily related to the technology side of science and technology. Many policy decisions are made without confidence in the ability of technologists to adapt. This comes in at least two flavors.
    1. The foreordained solution. Policy often comes in the form “we use approach X to solve problem Y” (some examples are above). This demonstrates an overconfidence by policy makers in there ability to pick the winner, and a lack of confidence in the ability of technologists to solve problems. It also represents an opportunity for large established industries to get huge payoffs at taxpayer expense. The X-prize represents the opposite of this approach, and it has been radically more effective by any reasonable standard.
    2. Confusion about the meaning of wealth. Some people believe that wealth is about what you have. However, for a society it seems much better to measure wealth in terms of what the society can do. Policy makers often forget that science and technology is a capability when it comes time to think of a solution. For example, someone with no confidence in the ability to create and make affordable plugin electric hybrids might think it necessary to conquest for oil.
  4. Stability People can’t program, do science, or invent new things when they are worried about more immediate events. There are several destabilizing trends going on in the US right now which either now or in the future may make it hard to focus away from immediate concerns.
    1. Debt and money supply. The federal debt for the US government is about 3.5 times the federal budget. This is bad for the simple reason that investors buying US treasury bonds aren’t investing in new technology. However, the destabilizing concern is more subtle. Since world war II, the US dollar has become the standard currency for exchange around the world. Since debt by the government creates a temptation by the government to (effectively) print money, the number of dollars in circulation has been rapidly growing. But, a growing number of dollars means that the currency is devaluing, which makes owning dollars undesirable. I don’t know an example of a previous world currency that has ceased to be such, but basic economics says that bad things happen to dollar-based savings if all the dollars flow back into the US. So far, the decline of the dollar has been relatively gradual, but a very disruptive cliff might exist out there somewhere. Policies which increase debt (like cutting taxes and increasing spending) exacerbate this problem. There is no fix once the dollar loses world currency status because confidence can be lost quickly, but not regained.
    2. Health Care. The US is running an experiment to determine how large a fraction of GDP can be devoted to health care. Currently it’s over 15%, in first place, and growing. This is even worse than it sounds, because many comparable countries in Europe (or Japan) have older populations which should generally be more expensive to take care of. In the present situation, because health care is incredibly expensive, losing health insurance (which is typically tied to a job) is potentially catastrophic for any individual.
    3. Wealth Asymmetry. The US has shifted towards a substantially more asymmetric division of wealth since the 1970s. An asymmetric division of wealth is not fundamentally bad—there needs to be room for great success to imply great rewards. However, a casual correlation of science and technology development with the gini coefficient map reveals that a large gini coefficient and substantial science and technology development do not coincide. The problem is that wealth becomes inheritable, and it’s very unlikely that the wealth is inherited by a someone interested in science and technology. Wealth is now scheduled to become perfectly inheritable in 2010 in the US.

I’m sure some of these issues are endemic to many other parts of the world as well, because there are fundamental conceptual difficulties with investing in the unknown instead of the known.

5 Replies to “Research Political Issues”

  1. Money supply, what’s M1, M2 and M3? I certainly do not know any of the nuances of that science.

    There is circulating currency and there is credit. Hence the multiplier effect. But, what’s the interplay exactly? I don’t pretend to understand that. However, selling treasuries takes circulating money out of circulation, and the multiplier effect applies, etc. So debt lessens the money supply. Or that’s the orthodoxy I remember from Econ 101.

    Then, I would argue against going back to the end of World War II for dollar hegemony as presently constituted. I would go to the 1970s. Since Nixon took us off the gold standard and abandoned Bretton Woods and at the same time OPEC agreed to price its oil in dollars, the dollar has been the de jure standard because the barrel was the de facto standard. If you were a nation wanting oil, you needed dollars to buy it, so you had no choice but to trade with Uncle Sam’s minions. Saddam and now Iran have experimented with pricing in Euros, as has Chavez. Some view them as an axis of evil. There are those who argue that the major factor in a decision to invade Iraq was the official will to maintain the stability of OPEC and hence the ongoing stability of world oil being priced only in dollars. It is a house of cards, in a sense, and overcapacity is one of the major worries in a global economy for various political reasons; scarcity of capital being a bedrock of much economic thought where oversupply of capital is problematic to that theory and to those controlling capital supplies and distribution. Carbon dioxide rationing is not an entirely divorced thought from capital supply and relative power and growth of nations considerations. Whether there is global warming or global cooling, we can ration, if we want to and understand the process and consequences – not that I do, but I understand what I am being told, to some extent.

    From another view, a hundred years ago animal power still was a major factor, my grandmother’s bakery in New Orleans delivered by mule cart and my grandfather was a blacksmith. There were railroads but not trucking, there was no national power grid and birds and insects alone flew – with no need for airport security then.

    Steel hulled ships were no longer a total novelty, rifled artillery was becoming widespread, etc., but communication as we know it was only a vision. No GPS or even a concept such a thing was possible – the atomic clock having to await quantum mechanics and such. Political norms from the enlightenment and French Revolution were being assimilated, and still are being so. And the Wall Street bombing was by horse cart, in 1920, not 1820.

    The lag in political innovation vs innovation in science is actually staggering and arguably a good thing.

    But at this instant, we have understanding of the genome that makes genetics of the 1980’s look crude, so medical possibilities mix with worry over insurance discrimination. And there is mnow a recognition of the avian flu threat that might not forestall it but at least the awareness is there, compared to the epidemic of 1918. People were saying, “Huh,” while it was peaking.

    Notions of war as a policy tool and the pros and cons of empire still haunt us and predate Rome. And as for technology, selling beer and trucks via Super Bowl broadcasting, Fox News; and the i-pod, arguably are insubstantial things that technology has yielded.

    My premise would be that Newton was productive during the plague and Galois coped with a very tight time frame and a high stress level going with it. Science of the kind needing high energy colliders or sequencing equipment and computing power probably, on a comparative scale, is what the longitude problem was in Harrison’s age. And in human terms, once he had won the prize he had one hell of a time collecting – that was the politics of it and professional jealousy still is with us. I would say that the political institutions are more constant while scientific capability grows exponentially. There will always be elites and masses and when you criticize mass “education” at the younger ages, apart from elite graduate programs, are you certain that there is a universally held and shared core set of goals and premises, being as you would view them or suggest they should be?

  2. To expand on your point 2.3, what about the influence of industry, and in particular, the encroachment of the military on academic research? From a BBC News article: \”Congress has mandated that one third of the US military\’s ground vehicles must be able to operate autonomously by 2015.\” Hence, the DARPA Grand Challenge.

    OK, that might sound overly cynical, since there are potential social benefits to having self-driving automobiles. But I do get the feeling that the military\’s influence on academic research is much stronger than many of us care to admit. The book Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt does a good job of deconstructing this influence into its various forms, and provides anecdotal evidence of how some researchers/professors kid themselves (or at least try to trick others) into believing that their work is ethically sound.

    There was one passage from this book that really stuck with me; unfortunately, I returned the book to the library and Google\’s preview includes only a snippet of the quote (pg. 79): \”… tells the naive reporter, \’When you\’re fighting a forest fire, for instance, you can\’t see what you\’re dropping the water on because of …\’\”. The gist of the story is that an esteemed (physics?) professor has developed technology that improves vision in the presence of fine particles, such as dust or smoke. His project was funded (at least partially, I don\’t recall the details) by the military, and has clear military applications. However, when describing his work to a journalist, he fails to mention these, and instead boasts that the technology will help fight forest fires.

    I am aware of some research in machine learning, of which the DARPA Grand Challenge is one example, that can be similarly characterized. The sinister applications of the technology are understated or omitted, and the stated motivation(s) can be misleading.


    John, your four examples (and your comments) in point 2.2 were thought-provoking. I am very interested and concerned about the Peak Oil theory, as well as the fallacies surrounding many of the \”clean energy\” initiatives, some of which you pointed out. While I tend to agree with you that the electric car appears to be the best alternative to gasonline-powered vehicles, I am left wondering where the electricity required to power those cars will come from. We would need to drastically ramp up solar/wind/hydro capacity; otherwise, I see us simply burning more dirty fuels in order to feed the grid, which would effectively constitute a shift from tailpipe to power plant air polution. The blackout of 2003 was a stark reminder that in many populous regions, the power grid is already operating at near capacity.

  3. It might interest you to know that in Ohio, USA, the system of funding grade schools (by the collection of local property taxes) has been ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court… 4 times. Yet, the system hasn’t changed, due to legislative inaction. The current politics of this nation are not the politics of the people!

  4. The differences between grade school and college are so very different that it’s mind numbing. I couldn’t agree more with your feelings here. If our grade school education levels could increase even slightly, our nation would be in for a big improvement.

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