Slouching toward October

When voters went to the polls last year, they cast a vote for change. On many issues, said voters have been disappointed. Unable to seek common ground, our elected representatives have time and time again fallen far short of the will of the People. When I cast my vote, I was looking for candidates who would effect a change in attitude toward science and science policy in Washington, as well as here in California. Optimism is always high in the absence of fact, I suppose. Well, we’ve gone a year with a Democrat-controlled Congress; where does science funding stand?

Let’s look at the progress of the two basic science funding bills. These are the Appropriations Bills for Commerce, Science, (State), and Justice, and for Energy and Water. The former funds the National Science Foundation, the latter the Department of Energy. In FY2007, $3.797 billion was appropriated for DOE Science, and the Senate committee recommended $4.497 billion for FY08. That’s an 18% increase in spending on science, proposed by the Senate. The House, in the same bill, had recommended $4.514  billion, a 19% increase. As usual, the House put up a bit more than the Senate, and we all expected the difference to be worked out in Conference.

When did all this occur? Well, the House and Senate committees finished their work on these bills on June 6 and June 28 of this year, respectively. The House voted on the bill on July 17, but never voted on the bill. Therefore, it never made it to conference, and will (likely) not be on the President’s desk before the Oct. 1 deadline.

What happened in 2006, when the Congress was firmly in Republican hands?  Well, the House and Senate committees finished their work on May 17 and June 29 of 2006, respectively. Interestingly, the House was speedier last year, but the Senate took almost the same time (to the day!) as this year. This would imply that Republicans were faster in turning the legislation around for a vote. Let’s look at the increases they proposed, however. Time and money can be inversely proportional, after all.

Last year, the speedier House recommended a 14% increase over FY2006 levels, while the steady Senate recommended an 18% increase over FY2006. Interestingly, the Republican-controlled Senate recommended the same relative increase last year as this year, while this year’s House recommended a higher relative increase than last year’s.

But the end results last year were not encouraging. After four continuing resolutions, which happened because the election intervened, the resulting budgets were increased at about half the recommended levels, not reaching anywhere near these double-digit percent increases. This year, we see the same kind of aggressive proposals for increase, and yet here we are at the deadline. A stop-gap measure will likely be forthcoming, to keep government running. Science sits in the shadows, so much less sexy than a difficult war, jumbled foreign policy, Chinese imports, and even the right of a left-wing liberal lobbying group to put an ad in the NY Times. And yet, a successful basic research program is responsible for the modern foundations of our society, in which blackberries carry last-minute information to staffers about upcoming votes, websites attract donors and gather petitions, and global positioning helps Washington newbies find their way to posh cafes in Georgetown.

Let’s hope that while we all continue to suck the cream out of the pail, we don’t forget to fund the cow. Can either party, separately or together, deliver on the public promise of support for basic research?

Catching Up: Science Friday

I missed “Talk of the Nation: Science Friday” last week [1]. This turns out to have been unfortunate. Two excellent stories aired that day. The first confirmed a personal belief of mine, and the second opened my eyes wider to the world of science and women.

The first story was about airplane air quality. Turns out that the sickening, slick, itchy, congested feeling I have getting off the plane after four hours **is** caused by bad air quality. As Dr. Charles Weschler noted, in single-aisle jets the airlines tend to not install catalyzers needed to scrub ozone from the air. The ozone, which is a core component of smog (and is already bad for you), reacts with skin and hair oils on passengers, lemon-scented hands wipes, and other chemicals to form a wide variety of nasty things: formaldehyde, acetone, and a series of carbon-rich molecules known to irritate sinuses. Large, multi-aisle planes have these scrubbers, which is why I guess I tended to feel better after getting off those jets. I recently lamented to Jodi that I wished somebody would do an updated study of airplane air. Thank-you, science!

The second hour was entirely spent discussing women and girls and their interest in mathematics. It was a very dense conversation with the many guests about this topic, and it helped to remind me why early, positive experiences with science and math are important in shaping kids so that they keep an interest in those topics.

The second hour also made me reflect on something that quietly annoyed me about “The Big Bang Theory”: there were no female scientists, and the only female in the show was treated as an object of beauty and exhibited (in the pilot at least), no real substance except that she found her neighbors’ interest in physics non-threatening. I guess we’ll have to see how the characters develop. Certainly, this is in radical distinction from a show like “Numb3rs”, where we find a female assistant professor of mathematics and astronomy, and a female math department chair.


At Midnight, About Physics

It’s collaboration meeting time again. When BaBarians last met in June, it was at SLAC. I split my time between plenary presentations, parallel sessions, chairing sessions, and (of course) hurrying to get the numbers needed to my own research presentations. It’s busy, but fun. This time around, BaBar is largely in France for its fall collaboration meeting. I’m still here in CA, a decision based on a variety of things. But I’m not less busy, and tomorrow night at midnight I’ll be calling into a session to present some preliminary results on a new research collaboration.

It’s good fun. I like the feel of new research. There is excitement in new colleagues, new ideas, the occasional disagreement. It’s invigorating. And, of course, with 24 hours left I’m pounding the plastic trying to pull my talk together and still get the latest numbers out of the data. Good times.

Farewell, Pief

He founded the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, was a tireless driving force behind the great discoveries of this laboratory, and worked into his last days as an advocate against the testing and use of nuclear weapons. Today, the scientific world has lost another luminary: Pief Panofsky.

We all got the news at SLAC this morning from our interim Director. Pief suffered a heart attack and died, having given this world many decades of his scientific vision. It will be very strange indeed to walk past his Director Emeritus office, and know that he isn’t sitting in there; very difficult to never see him coming in the side entrance of Central Lab, or sitting in the front row of the colloquium, or working to warn a deafening world about the silence-shattering horror of nuclear weapons. He will be so very missed.