Opinions and Rants #36: The Death of American Science

The story of American scientific advancement in the 20th century goes something like this: Before WWII, scientists and inventors were few and far between.  The War changed all that – the country’s economics boomed, the value of scientific advancement was realized, and the GI Bill sent thousands of men into the sciences that wouldn’t normally have even considered it.

The Atomic Age was born.  Science became the means to prosperity, a Utopian lifestyle and an end to the Commies.  We put a man in space, a TV in every living room, and a mushroom cloud in the Bikini Atoll.   Every kid wanted to be an astronaut and every mom dreamed of automated kitchens – it was science’s golden era.

Our newly minted scientists were chomping at the bit to outdo the Ruskies, but once the Cold War wound down, the competitive spirit went with it.  But science was saved by the microchip, and another boom was born. Americans looked at the computer with the same awe and optimism as they had with burgeoning technologies decades earlier.  Within a short span of time, satellites were put in space that interconnected every human being on Earth that could afford $20 a month.  Atom smashing, fiber optics, space shuttles, nanotechnology, String Theory, the Human Genome Project…. Science was here to stay, and by God, it’s going to be one helluva ride!

Maybe for the rest of the world, but not America.  Here, it’s dying.

The warning signs had been there: declining achievement in our schools, more and more tech jobs being shipped overseas, and a growing disenchantment with the fruits of scientific advancement.  The first clear assault on science came when George W. Bush slashed the federal budget research allotment.  The budget was bigger than before, we hadn’t cut spending – defense went way up – but science funding went way down. 

The super conductor super collider in Chicago nearly closed its doors.  The spot where science could be revolutionized was turning out the lights; meanwhile, the Swiss were building one even better (CERN) which will no doubt be a worthy investment downstream; one that we will most surely regret.

But this was by no means the only spot where science took a hit.  NASA went from being a national treasure, a source of national pride, to being an inconsequential money sucker.  Space programs have all but halted.  The last space shuttle has launched.  It’s over.

This technology can now fit in your pocket
Now the headlines are all about cutting more spending.  Let’s lower the debt ceiling and slash and burn government funded research.  Little do these politicians realize that this is the engine for the economy – it doesn’t come cheap, but its benefits will exponentially outweigh the cost.  

It used to be a matter of common sense that you cannot rely on private companies to develop the new technologies that will spark another fire of advancement.  What company would shell out money for space travel and super colliders? Companies are out to make money, not change the world. 

If you want true innovation, it’s going to have to come from the same place it came from back in the Atomic Age – the classroom and the laboratory.  And both areas, quite frankly, are not looking too good.  Our public schools have already been in a state of serious decline, and now our teachers have been made scapegoats as the reason their states are broke.  What intelligent educated individual in their right mind would ever want to pursue a career in education in this climate?

I, myself, work in a scientific field, so this hits close to home.  It is with a heavy heart that I watch the space shuttle program die as Europe builds the largest machine on Earth.
http://public.web.cern.ch/public/en/lhc/Facts-en.html. Republicans seem to want to wipe out even more spending on research, and guys like Limbaugh and Hannity try to shame it by pointing out ludicrous grants (Limbaugh loves to ridicule the cow fart grant). But we will surely cut ourselves into last place.


  1. I have this nagging feeling that if NASA had taken the space program just a little farther in the 70s and 80s, as in set up a moonbase or taken a shot at Mars, we would have uncovered enough practical uses for space that the private sector would've taken over. As it was, people just thought it was about Tang and velcro and hitting golf balls on the Moon. It's a real shame.

  2. I just like the picture before the cut. Mini-skirts equal science!

  3. And let's not forget the turgid hindrance the right wing Christian loonies have become to the biological sciences in this country.

  4. What Mr. said. This country gets exactly what it deserves because it asks for it repeatedly by embracing and kowtowing to moronic JesusFreaks.

  5. Patrick HJuly 22, 2011

    Do serious people actually believe this? Or that the the problem is Republicans not wanting to add more debt? It's all about one thing. Entitlements. Until entitlement spending is brought under control there's no money for the other stuff you might desire. There's no SS surplus for politicians to steal to fund other stuff. Transition SS and Medicare to private accounts and it opens up plenty of room to fund other things. But since the US still has more top universities than any other nation, does more research, and develops a large share of world technology the chicken little act just doesn't cut it.

    And teachers are fine. The union and administrators, on the other hand, are the enemy.

  6. AnonymousJuly 22, 2011

    Sure Patrick; throw SS to the Wall Street; they need to leverage more money off working people. Wall Street is a gamble, always was. Gambling is not how you plan for your future. And the Government would still be on the hook for citizen's welfare if/when it tanked (remember a year ago or so?). Fix SS properly, not throw it to the sharks. Individual teachers can be great; Teachers are part of the problem. Chicken Little? When will you notice that your "top" universities still spit out tons of unemployable people?

  7. I couldn't agree more with this post. It's heartbreaking to watch this country quite literally throw away it's lead in science and math.

    That said, I think in retrospect it was a mistake to go with the Space Shuttle program. The program was very expensive and that money would have been better spent on a manned mission to Mars. At the end of Apollo, NASA projected a manned Mars mission circa 1986. The Nixon Administration scuttled this and went with the Shuttle. A Mars mission would have kept the public interest up.

    I used to try to get my ex's little boy interested in NASA. The problem came down to this; when I was a kid, we were going to the Moon. By the time her son was old enough to appreciate the space program, all he saw was pictures of the Astronauts riding exercise bikes and chasing water droplets around the Shuttle. Small wonder that he wasn't very interested.

  8. Gilligan, you seem to be referring only to certain branches of science in your post. What about the environmental, geophysical, or biomedical sciences? Example: while I think that research on Viagra and building better boob implants is ridiculous, I have friends in the cancer research field, and they are doing marvelous work.

    I intend to emphasize science during my son's education (he's only 3, ha ha) because I feel scientific solutions to the muddles we have made are crucial to the financial and intellectual well-being of our planet.

  9. AnonymousJuly 23, 2011

    It was the Obama administration who canceled
    the followup to the Space Shuttle.Not Republicans.
    Most of my life i've heard left of center people say money should be spent on welfare programs on Earth not the Space Program.
    There will be more poverty for the family of unemployed NASA workers IMHO.

  10. Those are some interesting insights and from the comments, it looks like this topic can be controversial. I feel kind of guilty since I am one of those right brained people who has nothing to contribute when it comes to science, but I sure do appreciate those who understand it and work in the science field.

  11. True enough, Obama did cancel the follow up to the shuttle. Problem is, there's no real support in either party for Space right now. Which means we may very soon wake up to the Chinese sending a man to Mars...sad.

  12. There's no question that the GOP has been the party kicking the pins out from under American science, all in the name of misguided thrift.

    Remember the moon landings of Apollo 18, 19, and 20? Of course you don't--they didn't happen. They were all set up, and would have been laughably inexpensive--but Nixon cancelled them, to save money (of course, Nixon was also bombing the hell out of Vietnam at the time, which was more expensive...but not enough people were paying attention at the time).

    And how about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN? We may disagree how fabulous that is, but there's no question as to its superiority over America's super collider. America's super collider? Oh, that's just a big hole in the ground in Texas...THANK YOU RONALD REAGAN.

    Why are we having a "debt crisis" now? How about...because George W. Bush launched two major wars sans paying for them, enacted a massive series of upper income level tax cuts that drained the treasury, and spawned a near global economic collapse. Can't you remember that? October 2007, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a high of roughly 14,000 in October 2007, and dropped to 6,500 in March 2009.

    That kind of economic mismanagement & misplaced priorities (like "missile defense" and SDI) damages not only education, but the nation as a whole.

    So you can just shut your fat yap about "entitlements."

  13. AnonymousJuly 27, 2011

    Oh, and BTW, I was one of the last of a generation of field engineers trained to maintain those Burroughs 9 (or 7) track drives and card punch and readers you see in the computer picture.

  14. Gilligan, you are all wet on this topic. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, the number of patents issued in the U.S. has stayed about the same for the last 20 yrs http://mjperry.blogspot.com/search?q=patent

    As for the space shuttle program, it was pure political pork-we could have sent the same amount of freight into space for a fraction of the cost with unmanned rockets.

    Don't forget that the private sector funds far more scientific research than the government does.

  15. AnonymousMay 23, 2014

    More faulty analysis by Gilligan. First, Science and Technology spending from 2002 to 2012 increased from $27.5 billion to $29.1b; an increase of 6%; annualized an increase of .6% ... not quite keeping up with inflation but not exactly being slashed either.

    Second, and more importantly, the choice here isn't between defense spending (Republican fave) and S&T spending and but rather between entitlement spending (Democratic fave) and everything else in the budget to include S&T. From 1962 to 2012 entitlement spending increased from 31% of the federal budget to 62%, a nice neat 100% increase. Defense spending on the other hand dropped 49% of the budget to 19% of the budget; a 61% decline.

    From 2002-2012 the biggest increases in federal spending were energy (+1,751%); K-12 and vocation education (+145%); and food stamps (+137%); all bigger than the increase in defense spending, even though we were fighting two wars.

    There are many reasons why the economy is languishing but defense spending crowding out S&T and education spending is certainly isn't one of them.