Science Thingy

Just over a week ago, “The Onion” – a weekly joke newspaper – had an article in it entitled, “Scientists Ask Congress To Fund $50 Billion Science Thing” [1]. Like all jokes, it contains some interesting issues which are funny because we all worry they might be true. It’s funny for the same reason that “The Daily Show” is funny – it hurts so much to look at lawmakers like that, because down inside we worry it might be reality.

This article’s story is simple. A bunch of scientists, with confusing drawings and a vague message, go before Congress for hours asking for $50 billion. Congressmen, either blissfully ignorant or completely uninterested, say a bunch of vague things about science being important and opine about whether the project should be funded for a variety of political reasons. Some great quotes from the article are:

“The congressmen appeared receptive to what we were saying, and I think
that we made a very convincing case as to why we need a [science
gadget] of this magnitude on American soil,” said Caltech physicist
David Kaminski, who added various other scientific information. “[Some
complicated physics-related act] would be possible in our lifetime only
through the creation of a [science thing].”

“Now, I’m no science major, but if I’m being told by a group of people
that the protons, neutrons, and electrons need unifying, then I think
we owe it to the American people to go in and unify them,” Rep. Mark
Udall (D-CO) said. “After all, isn’t a message of unity what we want to
send to our children?”

” . . . I have always said that science is more important than it is
unimportant,” Committee chairman Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) said. “And
it’s essential we stay ahead of China, Japan, and Germany in science.
We are ahead in space, with the NASA rockets going to other planets, so
we should be ahead in science too.”

Several of my friends and colleagues have separately included me in forwards about this article. They’re posed worried-sounding questions about it, like “is this how they see us?”

See? It’s funny, but it hurts. It worries me a little too. The article is really on a number of basic stereotypes: Congressmen can’t understand science; scientists can’t explain what they do; basic research doesn’t seem to have any tangible benefits for society. Of course, Congressmen can understand science. Witness Rush Holt and Vernon Ehlers, both physicists. There are also many doctors in Congress, all of whom have at least a basic understanding of biology and chemistry. Scientists can communicate the importance and meaning of what they do. You may not like Brian Greene because of his theoretical leanings, but he gets people excited; Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an incredible communicator of all sciences, especially astronomy and astrophysics. And basic science? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: with linear accelerators came cancer treatments, with open science principles came the Web, and with general relativity came the ability to do accurate global positioning.

We as scientists have a lot of work to do. We have to get the public continually involved in the science, through outreach programs, scholarships and internships for students, and public lectures and forums. We have to keep engaging Congress about what we do, and why we do it. Scientists here in the U.S. aren’t some special nation of people; they are Americans, citizens, or visitors from other nations attracted by the openness and opportunity of American science. They are born just like all babies; what turns them into scientists is not always clear, but they start life like all other people and to me, that means all people can participate in science. Finally, we have to be true to ourselves: do honest science, even when you don’t always know the real use of the work. Be a good scientist, stick to your principles, but be prepared to get other people excited about your work.


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