In the 1960′s the USA had an unrealistic view of how much studying and learning about science and engineering could do. Investing is science and engineering is an extremely wise economic (and cultural) endeavor but it isn’t going to solve all the problems that exist. Somehow today we find ourselves with a large number of politically powerful people we take strong anti-science positions. This is an unfortunate turn of events that is damaging the American economy and will have huge damages going forward. Thankfully other countries have seen how wise investing in science and engineering is and have more than taken up the slack create by the anti-science community. Two favorite tactics of the anti-science leaders is to try and create confusion where there is none and to turn the focus away from serious matters and instead playing silly political games. The silly games will draw donors and voters so if they care about those things more than the country and the future of the country it is a sound tactic. The damage it causes the country however I would hope would limit the use of such tactics however that has not been the case recently.
The treadmills were just a small part of it, a way to measure how shrimp respond to changes in water quality. Burnett says the first treadmill was built by a colleague from scraps and was basically free, and the second was fancier and cost about $1,000. The senator’s report was misleading, says Burnett, “and it suggests that much money was spent on seeing how long a shrimp can run on a treadmill, which was totally out of context.”
John Hart, a Coburn spokesperson, said in an email that “our report never claimed all the money was spent on shrimp on a treadmill. The scientists doth protest too much. Receiving federal funds is a privilege, not a right. If they don’t want their funding scrutinized, don’t ask.”
What the politicians are doing is exactly what this spokesperson suggests – they are withdrawing from the anti-science culture created by some in Washington: they are moving their research to countries that support rather than attack science. That is a very bad thing for the USA. There are a number of very bad economic policies a government can take. Driving scientists and engineers into the arms of other countries is one of the worst.
If you are concerned about the spending of the USA government, which I am, it is harmful to sidetrack the discussion on extremely minor expenses. It is fine to deal with those minor expenses. But the anti-science community is very obviously not concerned about spending, they devote a huge amount of time and energy to focus on essentially insignificant amounts of spending meanwhile ignoring huge expenditures year after year. If you want to accept their claim that this is about government waste, you are entitled to do so. However, to me it is obvious it has nothing to do with that and is just a campaign to attack science which is doing great damage to the USA and will do even more in the future. We had huge leads in science and engineering centers of excellence. It takes time for those attacking that strong position to weaken it and it takes time for completing centers (in Europe, Japan, Singapore, Brazil, China…) to grow so that they are legitimate competitors (it is true especially Europe has had many such places for decades – and so have others, but the USA’s clear overall lead is rapidly diminishing).
It might be the USA has squandered so much wealth that we have to cut our investing in science and engineering. That I can accept. It will cost us a great deal in lost economic development. And those countries that were not lead as poorly as we have been for decades by the politicians will be able to much more easily build their science and engineering strength by luring those scientists and engineers to countries that value them.
Related: Society is being shaped for us while we are busy making other plans – Economic Strength Through Technology Leadership – Science, Engineering and the Future of the American Economy – Symptom of America’s Decline in Particle Physics – Shrimp on treadmills, laundry-folding robots, and the problem of ridiculing research