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Running Scared: Why Science Needs Us to be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

This business of predicting the future may take a couple more weeks since I am suddenly drowning in new information supplied by readers. But one reader — Richard Worsley from Australia — brought up an interesting and disturbing point not just about where basic research and R&D are headed, but about science, itself. He wrote:

"I am an engineer, but I am married to a scientist. You could say Ive done my time in the trenches as well, late nights in the lab, weekends in the lab, etc., etc. I therefore feel able to comment on the lot of the scientist today."

"I would broaden your question of research into a more general reflection on society. Science is not separate from society. It is composed of the same people who work anywhere. They have children, house loans, pay tax, read newspapers, go to the opera, etc., etc. As such what you are seeing is a symptom, I think, of a broad social trend. What ishappening is that the trend to globalization, market driven, efficient use of resources has got to such an extent that there is no intellectual freedom any more. And without that, creativity is dying. Scientists now spend more and more time justifying their work, applying for funding, and trying to find commercial uses for it."

"Basic science has always worked on the fact that we don't know the answer, hence we ask the question without having the answer. Try getting that concept up when the departement funding is being cut and you have to justify continued expenditure. It gets worse than that. The best scientists I know are all crazy. They have to be. If you are trying to do something that has never been done before you have to be 'on the edge' or unstable. Just like the best fighter planes are 'unstable.' This also means that they have real problems with people at times, especially with the ones who are now in charge of the organization. Scientists don't run these places any more. Now there are professional managers. How does a scientist who is absolutely brilliant at mathametical chaos theory even begin to explain to the 'boss' why he needs to spend six months thinking about some concepts? No, he doesn't know what they mean, he doesn't know if it will amount to anything, he can't say if he will have anything to show for it at the end, but he thinks it's interesting. I mean a lot of these people are also not very attractive people (emotionally or physically), or goodat dinner parties. Yet the name of the game these days is networking and getting contacts. It just ain't going to happen."

"Science is full of cheats, swindlers, etc., just like anywhere else. The traditional response to this has been the 'Peer Review' to keep the bastards honest. Yet this also leads to a culture of conservatism, to protect your own patch, look after your mates. So you come along with your grant application to spend two years proving that the Big Bangnever happened. Who's going to approve this grant? Some guy who spent 20years building his career on the fact that the Big Bang is the best thing since sliced bread!!!"

"These are just some glimpses as to what I think is really going on in science. No scientist is going to recommend to their children that they do science as society does not value it. They won't pay for it. They don't respect it. Who are the heroes? Movie stars, sports stars, captains of industry, lawyers, bankers, doctors, etc. The day TV does a soap on a research institute will be when? Never. So why do science?"

"We live in a world where image has triumphed over substance. Our leaders know the price of everything, but the value of nothing."

"Why should we expect science to be different from any other aspect of society? The great inventors were always men of private means. This is getting harder to do all the time. As you know Bill Gates is a man of private means — do you think he's going to spend his money and time dabbling in particle physics? How about any other superstars of thecomputer world?"

"I am sorry to say, but the people with the money today have no interest in the beauty of the universe. Their sights are set much lower. To dream about things other than survival or ripping the guts out of a competitor is a completely different skill set. Scientists need our love and support. The best ones really do have trouble dressing themselves. I am very suspicious of a scientist who is well dressed and articulate."

Wow. Richard has obviously been thinking a lot about this subject, and he makes his argument beautifully. But what if he has it all backwards? What if scientists aren't a class of ignored and abused saviors of society but are, instead, a group of spoiled brats who expect to be carried on the backs of the rest of us?

Into this argument now comes the Cringely Theory of Ultimate Degradation and Betrayal, which I developed over the course of several failed marriages. At the heart of my theory is a question: What is normal? Is normal the honeymoon? Or is normal taking out the garbage late on a Tuesday night in your eighth year of marriage, slipping on the wet pavement, falling on your bum, then having your wife laugh? I'm a honeymoon guy, myself, but the question could be just as easily asked whether normal is the Manhattan Project to build an A-bomb or the recent Bell Labs scandal of fudged research to build a resume?

Maybe the good old days Richard longs for were just an aberration, and that honeymoon feeling can never be regained.

What Richard didn't do was to explain why times used to be better, which was primarily based on fear. Defeating Hitler fueled science for two decades and made the USA a superpower. Defeating the USSR fueled science for two decades more and made the USA the world's only superpower. But despite the best efforts of Osama and his thugs, we've pretty much run ourselves out of opponents to fear, which means the Big Science checkbook is closing. Defeating Saddam won't fuel anything but a few B-52s.

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