Congress’ assault on knowledge

Last month, half of Congress decided that political science isn’t worth NSF funding unless it advances economic development or national security. Imagine, politicians making it more difficult to study politics. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the 72 other senators who voted for the bill seem to have forgotten that knowledge is the foundation of the economy and the root of our security. But the congressional assault on knowledge does not stop at political science. Science itself is now the target.

Under the guise of impartial austerity, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has drafted a bill—ironically named the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA)—to replace the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) peer review process with an arbitrary value-latent euphemistic circumlocution of funding criteria. Instead of peer reviewing the broader impacts and intellectual merit of scientific research to decide what projects deserve funding, Smith would rather cut the NSF budget and micromanage.

Jeffrey Mervis of Scientific Insider reports:

(FTA): “Specifically, the HQRA draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) ‘…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) … the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) …not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

NSF’s current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the ‘intellectual merit’ of a proposed research project as well as its ‘broader impacts’ on the scientific community and society.”

Regarding HQRA’s first criterion: Is there a nefarious ploy playing out within the scientific community to stagnate national health, prosperity, welfare, or security? Progress in science is a bulwark for national security, so shouldn’t we increase NSF’s budget and make funding more, rather than less, available? Innovation takes freedom. So unless Smith (et al.) can clearly identify other-regarding harm that stems from NSF research, national policymakers should not further limit, i.e. regulate, innovators freedom to innovate. If anything, HQRA would stifle innovative liberty.

To the second criterion: Not all science can or should be “groundbreaking.” Scientific advance is piecemeal. Some research is groundwork for groundbreaking discovery. Think of outwardly banal research like infrastructure: the state must invest in roads before sports cars can cruise. Roads might not be flashy, but they are necessary—and their construction is actually profound when studied in any depth. The seemingly insignificant of today is the foundation for tomorrow’s profundity.

To the third criterion: Duplication is essential to the very nature of science. “Groundbreaking” results should be duplicable. Scientific redundancy hedges against fraud. If results are neither duplicable nor duplicated, how can we tell what research is trustworthy? Precluding scientific duplication de jure strikes me as creating a quack haven. Unless HQRA sponsors intend to protect quackery, stipulating non-duplication is nonsense. More cynically, HQRA’s non-duplication clause would shrink publicly funded competition for “science” advanced by wealthy private political interest groups—re: Oreskes, Conway, & Fox’s concerns about climate change deniers and frackademia.

HQRA smacks of big government—and given its Republican sponsors, libertarian hypocrisy. Congress should not decide what science is worth doing. Natural demand generated within the scientific community should guide research priorities—the invisible hand of the scientific marketplace, in a sense. If Congress shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” in business, why should it in science? Scientists, not Congress, should be the authority on what science is worth doing.

HQRA constitutes an arbitrary imposition of its sponsors’ beliefs pertaining to the value of science—the value of knowledge—in society and policymaking. If HQRA sponsors want to debate the value or proper role of science in society and policymaking, then we should explicitly talk about those values and beliefs. We should discuss the principles underlying the policy. Smith (et al.) should not pretend their motivation is financial. To frame HQRA as a fiscal issue insults public intelligence.

We’re talking about an annual NSF budget of less than 7 billion dollars, people ($6.9B appropriated in FY2013—cut down from the full $7B in FY2012). The US spends $7 billion on defense every three days. Not that defense spending isn’t money well spent, but let’s keep things in perspective when discussing national financial expenditure—and might I reiterate the importance of scientific progress to national defense. NSF’s budget is not the source of US financial woes. In fact, scientific research is among the safest of investments.

Science policy should build roads and get out of the way—unless there are obvious risks of harm related to experimentation, which by rule of the harm principle, can and should be regulated. Scientific innovators do their best work when free to experiment, free to fail without accost, and free to prune the mysteries of the mundane. Of course, freedom means funding. But we, the people, provide that funding via taxes—NSF funded scientists included. We deserve sound public investment with high rates of return. Science satisfies both.

Congress is constitutionally empowered to appropriate the national budget, but to do so on the basis of arbitrary values and beliefs disguised as objective financial necessity is morally questionable at best. Congress is not a group of generous feudal benefactors with absolute prerogative over we peasantry as it seems to have forgotten. Our representatives must be held accountable and to a higher standard of moral sense, which this recent assault on science—on knowledge—offends.

Science is iconic of American idealism: exploration, new frontiers, adventure, accomplishment, mystery, unexpected wealth, innovation, freedom and progress. Unless Congress is in the business of curtailing freedom and progress, the Coburn and Smith policies are a mistake. For all our sakes, Coburn’s anti-political science amendment should be rejected in the House and Smith’s anti-science policy should never see the congressional floor. But only time will tell. Progress in science may be a fact, but progress in ethics is often phantasmal.


Mars in 30 days? Solar powered space flight

Here I thought the Solar Impulse was a breakthrough in solar powered flight, but NASA, the University of Washington, and Elon Musk of SpaceX (among others) have turned it to 11. With a new Fusion Driven Rocket (FDR) design, engineers may be able to cut the trip to Mars from 8 months to somewhere between 30 and 90 days. And what’s more: the engine operates via “magnetic inertial confinement fusion,” which, thankfully its designers explain, means that the rocket’s fusion reactor could be run by solar power alone–200 KW to be exact (an extremely feasible number). If flying from California to New York on solar energy as the Impulse team intends is impressive (and it is), then the FDR team’s plan for solar powered space flight is out of this world.

Colonizing Mars–part of Musk’s plan for making life multi-planetary to ensure that “the light of consciousness is not extinguished”–is undoubtedly among the more fantastical utopian visions of the future of humanity. Moreover, the team hopes to eventually make interplanetary travel so efficient that it’s commonplace. Skeptics and detractors (myself sometimes among them) may question the endeavor on “realist” or ethical grounds, claiming that either resource scarcity or social collapse is likely to preclude any significant opportunities for interplanetary migration, or that leaving the Earth behind is a defeatist reaction to socio-ethical challenges here at home, like stabilizing the modern ecological crisis. Indeed, I still think these points have some validity.

But Julian Simon’s infinite resource of human innovation again rears its head. The FDR is already in the pipeline, so to speak. And I’ll be the first to champion the triumphs of solar technology–especially when space travel is involved. Like so many others I’m sure, the prospect of an interstellar humanity speaks volumes to my inner Lewis and Clark–the passion for adventure and discovery too often squelched by the pervasive impact of human activity on and ubiquitous presence in what remains of natural world.

Interplanetary exploration and colonization promise new environments, mysteries, challenges, and questions–philosophical and otherwise. Should we leave Earth in the first place? What is the purpose of colonizing another planet? What would “environmental philosophy” mean if/when we depart from our environment of origin? What new responsibilities do we have to the non-human if and when we undertake massive martian geo-engineering projects like terraforming? If human beings create a living ecosphere on Mars, should we see ourselves as eco-constituents subsumed by a greater natural cycle as we are here on Earth, or, in a sense, should we regard ourselves as semi-gods, directly responsible for the martian natural cycle’s very existence? How should we organize a new society on Mars? Do Earthly political philosophies still apply? Once society on Mars is established, what responsibility will Martian humans have to their Earth-dwelling counterparts, and vice versa, if any? And should we today move further into the final frontier by small precautionary steps or giant proactionary leaps? Barring any unforeseen fatal design flaws or socio-political roadblocks, we could soon have our generation’s Neil Armstrong moment on the red planet. And we’d get there on solar power no less. To the sun god!



Sierra Leonean prodigy comes to MIT

Last night I came across this MyScienceAcademy gem featuring Kelvin Doe, a 15 year-old Sierra Leonean who is nothing short of an engineering, mechanical, and technological prodigy. For years this kid (and I use the term “kid” loosely when referring to such a fine mind) has been rooting through “dust bins” in his neighborhood to scavenge old electrical components that he has used to construct his own radio station, where he goes by the performer name DJ Focus.

A radio station may sound small at first, but this is a community where electricity is available for maybe an hour each week. From discarded materials Kelvin engineered his own batteries, electrical circuitry, broadcasting apparatus, and audio equipment, all for two reasons: 1) So that he could play fantastic music for his friends and family. Everyone should listen to this song by Bobby Fala, which DJ Focus endorsed and played over his station — Fala has now also made it to SoundCloud, largely I bet, because of Kelvin’s success and publicity. And 2) So that the community could use his radio station as a forum for public political discourse – a chance for the unheard to find their soapbox, a place for issues on the ground to find their voice.

Without question, Kelvin’s enthusiasm, passion, genius, and focus are an inspiration. Imagine if more teenagers shared Kelvin’s clarity of thought, his drive and his heart, his sense of commitment to community and to improving the lives of his friends and loved ones. Hopefully, with help of non-profit programs like Global Minimum Inc: Innovate Salone, the group that discovered Kelvin, more youthful brilliance will show itself.

Kelvin’s story gives us all reason to be optimistic about humanity’s future. What’s he’s done is truly astounding — and if he continues to receive the support he needs, I bet this radio station and his trip to MIT won’t be the last time this young man makes headlines — particularly if he starts working on something like sustainable energy technology, improving batteries and energy efficiency, or developing small-scale alternatives to traditional electrical grids (though admittedly, he’ll probably come up with better ideas all his own). I wouldn’t put anything past him.

To Kelvin! Cheers!

JM Kincaid

Tidal power makes waves in Maine

Admittedly, the Sun is my usual celestial body of interest, but today I feel compelled to mention the Moon. Or rather, the tides that the Moon’s gravity creates here on Earth. Tidal power is an almost entirely untapped source of renewable energy in the United States. Almost. For the first time in history, tidal energy is contributing to the US power grid. On Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012, Ocean Renewable Power Company’s Maine Tidal Energy Project, using underwater turbines off the coast of Maine, delivered electricity to ~27 homes. Incremental developments in technology and our use of renewable energy like this are, I think, certainly cause for optimism re our evolution beyond fossil fuels. After all, small steps make for giant leaps. And we need a giant leap.

Here is a link to the ORPC project website, and here is the Huff Po article that first reported the project’s coming online.