Hard Scientists Should Care About the NSF’s PoliSci Woes

Alex Berezow wrote an op-ed in USA Today defending the decision to defund the NSF’s political science programs aside from projects “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States”. Berezow is also co-author of Science Left Behind, a book looking at anti-science tendencies on the left half of the political spectrum, which I blogged a bit about last November. And then the piece tapers off into something about scientists being too Democratic and they’re like a lobby and it just kind of becomes a generic cut the budget piece by the end. Needless to say, I’m not much more convinced by this op-ed than by the book or his interview with reason.

He starts by pointing out that political scientists are predictably outraged, but is confused why natural scientists are angry. He links to theoretical physicist Sean Carroll’s post on the funding cut and calls it an overreaction because he quotes “First they came”. Nazi overtones might be a bit much, but the analogy of continually chipping away at something seems valid. Berezow seems to think the fact that “relevant” political science could still be funded means a hard scientist shouldn’t ever worry about this. But a lot of hard science isn’t immediately practical. Carroll works in cosmology, which is basically abstract physics and abstract astronomy, so it seems entirely reasonable for him to worry about cuts to grants for research projects that won’t generate immediate economic benefit. We’ve already seen an attempt to go down the slippery slope with Lamar Smith’s proposed amendments to limit NSF funding in all fields to only projects relevant to economic or defense interests.

Berezow also claims that scientists act like too much of a partisan interest group since they only attack Republicans. While it’s true the Coburn amendment was approved by a bipartisan vote, that was part of a compromise to keep funding the government past sequestration. And Republicans have repeatedly offered similar amendments in the past, even when there weren’t such pressing budget concerns. It also seems ironic that despite two of Coburn’s amendments being incorporated into the bill, he still voted against it. Part of the logic behind the scientists are an interest group claim is how often they identify with Democrats. The survey does show that scientists are more Democratic and liberal than the general public.  This may lead to a disconnect between scientists and the public on some issues, and it merits study, but there’s no clear mechanism explaining it. But Berezow also seems to be including social scientists in his definition of scientists. The survey everyone talks about is focused on natural scientists. While some social science fields are also filled with liberals, I believe that political science and economics have a stronger Republican/conservative presence. 

Scientist ideology

Also, if politicians are going to go after interest groups, there are many with more votes to grab than a scientist bloc. In 1999, there were only about 3.5 million people with STEM degrees working in science and engineering fields. But if we’re talking about scientists as a interest group, we need to separate them from the engineers. Engineers are more likely to work in industry instead of in the public sector or academia than scientists, and also tend to be more evenly split along party and ideological lines. In 2011, about 35000 people graduated with doctorates in physical, life, and social sciences and engineering. Although this includes engineers, the fact that this only looks at people graduating with doctorates increases the odds that they will be doing basic research for the government or academia. Not all of those people are American citizens, though, and so they won’t vote. I don’t know the number for social sciences, but international students now make up almost half of all natural science and engineering grad students, so that already narrows the voter pool to like 25000 new group members a year (assuming nearly all social science PhDs are American citizens, for some reason). And not all these people will end up being funded by the government, either in a government agency or by public grants to universities. 27% of life science PhDs, 54% of physical science PhDs, and 71% of engineering PhDs went to work in industry in 2011. Factoring that in, a “government-dependent scientist” bloc would only grow by about 14000 votes a year. I think that is the rounding error of a decent get out the vote project.


What do Einstein and Elvis Have In Common?

  Aside from fantastic hair and piercing eyes?

They can both help diagnose dementia.

Recognizing famous pop culture figures can be used as a measure of several mental tasks, like the ability to recognize faces (which can be a really complicated process, resulting in the common phenomenon of seeing faces in random objects called pareidolia) and how easily a person can name things. One problem that the researchers came across when evaluating people was how old the original face test was. A person in their 70s or 60s may know what Emperor Hirohito looked like, but could you expect that of a 40-year-old coming in to see if they had early-onset dementia? So the team at Northwestern decided to modernize the sample. Einstein made the cut to stay, since his mug can still be found everywhere in our culture. But now we have Oprah instead of Martha Mitchell (the wife of Nixon’s attorney general, evidently).

Are We Living in a Physicist’s Nightmare?

So about a year ago, physicists at CERN announced the discovery of the Higgs boson (or more technically, a “Higgs-like particle” that has now been confirmed to be the Higgs) in the LHC. And you probably haven’t heard much about the collider since then.  Part of that is because the the discovery (or non-discovery) of the Higgs at the energies the LHC was probing at was one of the biggest tests of the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which was one of the major selling points of building the LHC in the first place. And since February of this year, the LHC has been shut down to allow for technical improvements that will turn it into an even more energetic detector (and in particle physics, the more energetic you are, the more you can see). If you’re really tuned into CERN, you may know that in November of last year, researchers announced observations of a rare kind of meson decay into muons (which are like heavier electrons).

But part of the reason also seems to be that the results from before the shutdown don’t give physicists much new to theorize on. The Higgs boson was discovered to have the mass predicted by the Standard Model, and so served as a great test of that. But that also means it doesn’t really offer anything new for theorists. And though the muon decay hasn’t been verified yet to the statistical significance that particle physicists consider to mean a discovery, what has been found so far still fits into the Standard Model. Neither of these findings fit into most of the common models of supersymmetry, which is believed to be a necessary component of string theory, which is currently the dominant idea to go beyond the Standard Model to a “theory of everything”.

The stakes for various new physics that researchers hope to find at the LHC.

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