Overselling Science Causes Problems

I appreciated Ron Hira’s thoughtful Back Page in the August/September 2008 edition of APS News. It does seem to accurately capture my experiences and those of my colleagues, and it quantifies the issues regarding STEM supply and demand.

His comment “to date, our policy discussion about the implications of globalization has relied too heavily on interests of companies and universities rather than being based on any data-driven analysis” was very apt. I recall a very similar statement made in 1990 by an MIT/University of Illinois PhD physicist. By the way, this friend left science and engineering in his 40s and never returned, as far as I know.

In my opinion, the overselling of the sciences as a profession over the past 4 decades has been the primary problem for science in this country. When the best and brightest go into science and then fail professionally, it leaves a huge impression on family, friends, and the larger community. When this happens repeatedly over 4 decades, it can create an anti-science cultural bias that is difficult to erase. I know talented recent PhD’s in the physical sciences in their 30s and 40s who are either vastly underemployed or unemployed in 2008, so the issue still remains.

I have been grateful for my limited success in science and engineering, and for the opportunity to contribute to the human endeavor in a unique and positive way through scientific discovery and innovation for 25 years. However, at age 49 I definitely question whether the sacrifices were worth it, and wonder how much longer I will survive (or should survive) in science and technology.

Rich Holmes
Cannon Park, CA

Mission Relevance Enhances Army Research Impact

In his July 2008 Back Page article, Leo Kadanoff makes a compelling case regarding the decline in the nation’s basic research capacity, and he recommends a corrective response that emphasizes education as well as enhanced research support. He argues this decline has cut across both the private and public sectors, and cites as an example of the decline of government support the 50th Anniversary Symposium of the Army Research Office (ARO), held in June 2001, from which Kadanoff understood that ARO would no longer support basic research. As the Director of ARO, I can state categorically that is not the case.

Throughout its 57-year history ARO has consistently championed basic research, producing many scientific advances that profoundly impacted technical innovations for the Army in particular, and the nation in general. If anything, ARO is now even more vigilant than ever in maintaining its focus on highly innovative basic research, to a large extent for the reasons stated by Kadanoff–there has been a significant erosion of the overall national support of long-term, high-risk basic research–so ARO’s contribution to this national imperative is even more critical.

ARO’s mission has always been to identify, create, fund, and manage fundamental basic research programs that lead to key technological advances needed to make our soldiers safer and more effective. ARO receives very strong support in this mission from all levels within the Army and DoD, ranging from its parent organization, the Army Research Laboratory, to the highest levels within the Pentagon. In fact, thanks to recent efforts by DoD Secretary Gates and his Office of Defense Research and Engineering, and with the support of the Army and other services, the President has submitted a budget to Congress that includes a very significant increase in the DoD basic research funding for FY09. It is also worth noting that the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology is supporting a large number of STEM education initiatives to help educate the future high-tech workforce for the Army and the nation at large.

ARO’s purview includes essentially all of the physical, engineering, life, and computer science disciplines. It should be understood that ARO doesn’t support all sub-disciplines within a given discipline because of our Army mission. For example, ARO doesn’t currently fund any projects in elementary particle physics because the probable Army impact is low compared to other possible investments. This focus on mission relevant research does not mean the ARO programs are not truly basic in nature. For example, ARO Physics programs currently include research on quantum information science, meta-materials and transformation optics, ultra-cold quantum degenerate gases, the physics of strongly correlated matter, novel quantum phases and quantum phase transitions, and behavior at interfaces. Another indication of ARO’s ongoing commitment to basic research is that, so far this decade, nine individuals have won Nobel Prizes involving research ARO supported prior to their getting the awards.

Scientific advances produced by ARO-funded research, often supported in concert with other agencies, will result in revolutionary advances in Army capabilities ranging from fundamentally new types of sensors, to ultra-secure communications, to very light-weight, strong and multifunctional materials. The impact on civilian technology is also very significant. Although ARO’s investments in basic research programs are constrained by Army mission relevance, it is precisely this relevance that accounts for these programs’ extraordinary impact on the nation's economy and our quality of life.

David Skatrud
Research Triangle Park, NC

The Whole 8.23 Meters

In his stimulating Back Page article “APS, Physics: Aspirations and Goals” {APS News, July 2008], Leo Kadanoff discusses some various proposals to arrest the decline in American science, such as given in the report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. However, nowhere in the list of the report’s suggestions is there any mention of the need for the United States to convert to the metric system. At present this nation is joined with Liberia and Myanmar as being the only nations left on the planet not on the metric system! The support in the “Gathering Storm” for “more immigration of high tech workers,” fails to mention that these workers would come from countries that are all on the metric system, which has consequently given those workers a better scientific “head start”  than our own, thereby resulting in a shortage. In any case, to help arouse the American people, and eventually Congress to the need for such a conversion, for some years I have been advocating that our high schools, colleges, and universities convert their football fields from one hundred yards to one hundred meters. Having done this, one would no longer have the absurd situation that presently prevails in which students on the track team run distances in meters, while students on the football team run distances in yards. Or, as a mother recently informed me, her son’s length was measured in inches, but the circumference of his head was measured in centimeters! Although we have come a long way from the scientific accomplishments of the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, we still have a long way to go. Nearly 10 meters in fact.
Frank R. Tangherlini
San Diego, CA  

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan