Frost bite

In his state of the union address, President Obama said that

“Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years.  (Applause.)  Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected.  But all other discretionary government programs will.  Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t.  And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.  (Applause.)”  [1]

There are fudge phrases in here, like “prepared to freeze” – leaving a little wiggle room for tough choices. But again, as always, science (discretionary spending in the federal budget) faces a climate where few people champion its cause in Congress and, regardless of the party in power, is likely on deck for the freezer. This can happen for several reasons.

The first is the stimulus bill. Scientific agencies received one-time injections of cash that they are still pushing out the door (and likely will be until 2011). But stimulus spending is not a long-term investment in anything. Stimulus spending gets things moving, but it’s adrenaline into a stopped heart; you do it once to get the heart pumping, then you find the nearest hospital and start long-term rehabilitation. The danger is that the Congress and the President will see the stimulus spending on science as the only success they needed score in science.

Science policy and support in this country was saved, but not healed, by the stimulus bill. Since the President only talked about energy research in his address,

Last year, we made the largest investment in basic research funding in history -– (applause) — an investment that could lead to the world’s cheapest solar cells or treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched.  And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy.  You can see the results of last year’s investments in clean energy -– in the North Carolina company that will create 1,200 jobs nationwide helping to make advanced batteries; or in the California business that will put a thousand people to work making solar panels.

but failed to highlight the other areas of science that can now hire. The Department of Energy alone just awarded about 100 Early Career Awards, with enough money in each of those over a five year period that each grant could support at least one new Ph.D. researcher who otherwise might have left the field or the country (or both). Congress and the President decry the loss of a high-tech workforce, but seem to neglect to mention when such jobs are created or saved outside of some factory. And while it’s nice that a boutique area like energy research gets mention, the risk is that you forget to talk about supporting general areas like chemistry, biology, math, physics, computing. Forgetting the base puts at risk the ability to invest in the next boutique project.

Independent of the stimulus bill, the profile for science funding has still been stale or declining for at least a decade. It’s easy to become complacent and think that science can manage on such budgets, since it’s still going in the U.S. But alive does not mean living, and breathing does not mean thriving. Keeping science alive, and giving it the means to live, are two completely different things. The Congress needs to understand this, and the President needs to be reminded of this.

None of this is to say that science, for sure, will face the freezer this year. But if we don’t hold the line, and fight to force the line outward so that we gain more ground, we will all have to go elsewhere to pursue our research. Science knows no borders – decades of international cooperation has demonstrated that. The flip-side is that science will go where the money is plentiful, where the path of least resistance between an idea and a lab is possible. Science will go where students are eager to learn and contribute. Patriotism only lasts so long in the heart of the scientist, because understanding nature is more important than clinging to a flag.

If the President was serious when he said,

How long should America put its future on hold?  (Applause.) You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse.  Meanwhile, China is not waiting to revamp its economy.  Germany is not waiting.  India is not waiting.  These nations — they’re not standing still.  These nations aren’t playing for second place.  They’re putting more emphasis on math and science.

then I had better see science agencies protected from another long stint in the freezer when the President’s proposed budget appears this week. Where will the emphasis be in this budget proposal, and will it plunge us further from leadership or give us the framework to define our success on our own terms?

[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-state-union-address

NASA Report on Global Average Temperatures

A beautiful press release from NASA just appeared which concisely and directly summarizes the analysis of global temperature since 1880 using three data sources. Find the article here: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/temp-analysis-2009.html. I particularly like that they make a clear distinction between short-term local effects (El Nino, La Nina), short-term cyclic effects (solar irradiance), and long term global trends (temperature increases). It’s those short-term local or cyclic effects that most global climate change deniers like to use to cheat the public out of an understanding of  the long-term effects. The NASA article quickly makes the distinction and nicely illustrates how those effects are accounted for.

A bad check

On this day remembering the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , I performed my annual ritual of listening to his “I Have a Dream” speech. This year, I tried for focus my attention on one of the early themes of the speech: the bad check. King wrote and said,

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Transcript from [1])

Dr. King goes on to talk about how “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” In 1963, when he gave this speech, his words were cast in the movement of the time – civil rights, focused on black men and women – but they live on from generation to generation. These words are are true in every struggle, in every generation, where any minority works to gain equality in a society.

I focused on this part of the speech because there has been a terrifying thing going on in Texas of late. It started a year ago with changes to the Texas public education science standards. Texas, the second-largest textbook market in the U.S., sets standards for the nation because if companies want to sell school texts they have to sell them to Texas. It is too costly to print editions that satisfy Texas standards. Thus, the Texas State Board of Education makes decisions that affect the entire nation.

The board has been steered by many of its members toward views on science that are neither scientific nor standard [2]. Now, they are focusing on standards for social studies and history. Among the philosophies being brought to bear by members of the board are views that rights for minorities come not from the struggle of the minorities but from the graciousness of majorities [3]. This downplays the role of great men and women (such as Dr. King) and instead claims to put the victory in the hands of politicians or the voting majority. Quite apart from the myopic view of history this presents – after all, it is the struggle of the minority that leads to public outcry and pressure on populist politicians – this represents a re-writing of history, taking the success of the civil rights or labor movements out of the hands of the activist and the organizer and into the hands of the establishment, who at the time wielded the technical power.

Science is an interesting place to study the role of minorities. In almost all areas of science, women are still a minority (societal minorities, such as certain racial or ethic groups, are even moreso in science). Thinking for a moment about the struggle of women to gain equality in all parts of society, science finds itself no discipline apart from others (such as the corporate world). As a member of the scientific community who watches women and others rise up and struggle in the field, I have a duty and a responsibility to make sure that this field provides the opportunity and flexibility that each individual needs to achieve the success they are capable of pursuing. This duty is equally placed upon every member of the community.

However, the laying of a duty upon the heads of all members of a community is not sufficient for the achievement of success for each community member. Take a minority as an example. Recognition that they have unique needs is not guaranteed unless members of that minority rise up and speak out for what is needed to achieve equality. The majority cannot be expected, nor historically has it managed, to identify what the minority needs to achieve the equality needed to make possible their success. Be it ways to bring people out of poverty (e.g. scholarships), or flexibility in the expected hours or periods of work (e.g. flex-time), or ways to create more of the leadership positions hoarded by those at the top and protected from those below (e.g. terms limits on service), it is incumbent upon the minority to speak and the majority to join them in acting.

Equality in science, as in other areas of society, will not be achieved by the benevolence of the majority – certainly, it cannot be achieved by any tyranny of the majority. While majorities control resources and access, minorities have the ability to work actively to advocate for their needs in society. For a majority to part with the status quo requires many things to align, but none of them align without the struggle of the minority for equality.

The promise of equal rights lies not in the hands of the majority. It lies in the principles that define and govern society. For the U.S., those principles are encoded in the U.S. Constitution ultimately, and spiritually in the Declaration of Independence. Those principles are not the property of the majority – they are the property of all men and women. While the majority may control the means to achieve equality, they do not themselves control the truth that equality must be. In science, as in U.S. society, there are principles of equality whereby all people bring their talent and experience to the scientific method in the search for an ultimate and underlying truth. Science is a culture, but not one that is vastly apart from those controlled by self-evident truths. In serving science, we as scientists must also serve the men and women who support, promote, and perhaps become scientists.

If it is not majorities that give rights to minorities, but rather fundamental principles that apply in equal measure to both majorities and minorities, then it is the struggle of the minority to get their access that eventually ends the distinction between the two groups. The only role a majority seems to serve, then, is to separate a minority from their rights. It is a bad check, indeed, (and at the very least, self-serving to the majority) to think that the opposite is true.

[1] http://www.usconstitution.net/dream.html

[2] http://steve.cooleysekula.net/blog/2009/04/03/as-goes-texas-so-goes-textbooks/

[3] http://tfninsider.org/2010/01/15/live-blogging-the-social-studies-debate-iii/#more-5302

Deserve Neither

In a lifetime, your chance of dying from heart disease is 1 in 5. Your chance of dying in a car accident is 1 in 272. Your chance of dying while walking is 1 in 623. Your chance of dying due to drowning or accidental submersion is 1 in 1073. Your chance of dying due to exposure to forces of nature is 1 in 2866. Your chance of dying from intentional assault (excluding terrorism) is 1 in 207. What is your chance of dying, over a lifetime, from an act of terrorism?

While the definition of “terrorism” is being changed everyday by modern fear culture, using the classical definition of ” . . . a random act of mass destruction perpetrated against a group of civilian targets . . . “, we can explore two different scenarios. In the year 2006,  your chance of dying from a terrorist attack was < 3/298,362,973, or less than 1 in 99,454,324, at the 95% confidence level. For a person born in 2006, their life expectancy is 77.7 years. That means their integrated lifetime probability of dying in a terrorist attack is less than 1 in 7.7 billion. Why a limit? The data used here [1] came from the National Safety Council in 2006, and there were no deaths of U.S. civilians due to terrorism in 2006; therefore, one has to apply Poisson statistics and use the upper limit on the number of deaths (at 95% confidence level) in a given year. Granted, this number is unstable over time since it’s so small in a given year, but even taking a extreme year like 2001 into account (where 3000 people died in the U.S. from an attack) the integrated lifetime probability of dying would be 1 in 13 million.

A false debate has begun recently about airport security. Prompted by the failed attempt to bring down a plane on Christmas, crazies have been coming out of the woodwork calling for tighter U.S. airport security and political officials have been scrambling to say or do something to respond to those voice. But the debate is false for several reasons:

  1. The failure of security occurred at overseas airports, which while they are required to implement U.S. security procedures for flights in-bound to the U.S. are not themselves under direct scrutiny by U.S. security agencies. Therefore, the failure of foreign agencies to screen passengers is a key failure in this event.
  2. A wider failure to “connect the dots” on intelligence in U.S. hands contributed to this person being able to fly to the U.S. in the first place. In that sense, airport security wasn’t as direct a factor, since he could have been prevented from flying by paperwork in the first place.
  3. The technology available to detect the bomb carried by this man exists, is already deployed, but is neither sexy nor headline-grabbing.

Instead of having a real discussion about improving intelligence assembly and action, or a real discussion about how our international partners are creating weaknesses in our security, instead we’re talking about stripping more privacy and rights (and clothing) from passengers in the name of security. But the real irony is the third item above: the technology to prevent such walk-ons exists, but is neither sexy nor controversial and thus uninteresting to the press or people at large.

What tech is this? Dogs and G.E. Air Puffer machines. Dogs have many times more smell receptors than humans, and thus can be trained to respond to even small quantities of certain classes of chemicals [2]. So why aren’t there more bomb-sniffing dogs deployed in airports? I see a growth industry here, if people would just wake up and realize that dogs could be part of the solution to personal privacy that we have been asking for.

The G.E. air sniffers blow short, sharps bursts of air over your clothing and scan for trace amounts of dangerous chemicals, indicative of bomb-making or other shenanigans. I’ve only seen a handful of these at major airports in the U.S., and NONE overseas. I don’t know if they’re effective, but in concert with dogs they must make a for a tight net. Why not spend some of that stimulus money to order more of these, and, heck, even arrange for G.E. to export the technology to foreign airports at prices that can make them a fortune? Why can’t capitalism and existing technology meet and help serve our economy while making us more secure?

Ultimately, the reason that this whole idea of full-body scanning is a joke is simple: suppository weaponry. Imagine a situation where a terrorist hides the components for a weapon up their ass. Body scanners peel away clothing but not flesh and muscle and bone. It doesn’t take much high explosive to blow a hole in a plane, and since plastic explosive can be shaped into convenient forms (that’s what makes it so useful), it’s only a matter of time before a colon bomb becomes the weapon of choice. But inserting that device ought to leave a mess of smells of chemicals on you and/or your clothes, and I’ll bet dogs or puffers can still find it.

Ben Franklin is over-quoted at times like this. I’ll paraphrase him and say that when America cannot safely combine liberty, security, and capitalism, it deserves none of them.

[1] http://www.nsc.org/news_resources/injury_and_death_statistics/Pages/TheOddsofDyingFrom.aspx

[2] http://www.slate.com/id/2123216/