Posted by: Dan | July 23, 2007

Supporting Science

The July 13th issue of Science had a letter that I want to take a post to draw attention to. In it, James Gentile (President of the private funder Research Corporation) responds to John Marburger (Bush’s science advisor), who recently called for U.S. researchers to rely more on private philanthropy and industry to expand the scientific enterprise (“U.S. science adviser tells researchers to look elsewhere,” J. Mervis, News of the Week, 11 May, p. 817). Gentile’s response puts the situation in stark perspective:

We at Research Corporation, America’s first foundation for science advancement (begun in 1912), would like to say we stand ready to heed Marburger’s marching orders. We’d like to boldly step forward to fund U.S. scientific research, so that the administration could continue to cut taxes for the rich and focus taxpayer dollars elsewhere, including the reported $9 billion or so it spends every month in Iraq. Alas, we can’t.

Our $170 million endowment, even when combined with those of our sister science advancement foundations, isn’t likely to meet all the needs of U.S. researchers left high and dry by flat federal funding. In 2004, the top 50 private U.S. foundations awarding science and technology grants distributed just under $456 million. This sum pales in comparison to the impact and importance of federal dollars.

Now, I don’t know how $456 million would compare with the funding of, say, the UK, the EU, China, or elsewhere, but the NSF for the same year received $5.5 billion in discretionary federal funding, and the NIH roughly ten times as much as that. So, with $456 million, we will suffocate scientific research in this country. And with an economy fueled by science-driven technology and medicine R&D, our economy would tank very quickly (and dramatically) upon the shut-down of science funding.

Oh, and don’t forget that we can easily afford all of this at current levels (we’re spending well over a trillion dollars on Iraq, and doing just fine, afterall).

So why does Bush (and his lackey Marburger) want to raid the Ivory Tower? Why is there such hatred for science amongst the rabid conservatives running the Republican Party?



  1. “Why is there such hatred for science amongst the rabid conservatives running the Republican Party?”

    Dan, I don’t think they could even answer that question. At least not in any logical way.

    It’s something I push constantly when talking to these people. I know what they believe, and I’m not really interested in that, I want to know why they believe what they believe.

    But apparently they don’t know or they’re not telling.

  2. Now that is an interesting point – trying to understand why people believe what they believe. Or, put differently, why are counter-factual and contradicting claims (and many assertions underlying the psychology of religion are both) have such influence on human minds?

    I have to say, that to anyone interested in those questions that while I may not have a good answer, I’m most impressed by the books of Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran. Boyer (a cultural anthropologist) and Atran (an evolutionary psychologist) both just blew my mind away.

    But I’ve become rather convinced that, for some reason, the capacity for such nonsensical beliefs is hard-wired into the human brain. Why though? … maybe H. sapiens isn’t as intelligent a species as we’d like to think….

  3. I definitely agree we are not as intelligent as we think. Honestly, we are peons in a vast Universe that could swallow us at any second, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

    I agree, I think it is “hardwired” passed on through memes because “God” explains away death, and death is the one thing we all fear.

    I honestly have no problem with God. God is cool, it’s some of his followers that are worrisome.

    I was watching a video of Christopher Hitchens last night, and I think he confuses “God” with “God’s followers.”

    I think his message would be stronger if he made that distinction. When he says, “God isn’t great” he upsets people who probably agree with what he’s actually saying which is, “These religious nuts are going to kill us all if we don’t stop them.”

  4. “I agree, I think it is “hardwired” passed on through memes because “God” explains away death, and death is the one thing we all fear.”

    Existential angst alone doesn’t explain the fanaticism of many members of religious groups. I think that religiousness creates an environment where the more counterfactual (and absurd) the ideas that you say, the more devoted you appear to the faith (and, by extension, the community). It’s a hard-to-fake way to earn the community’s trust, and enables one to fully reap the reciprocal altruism of group inclusion. [Okay, I’ve been reading Atran quite intensely, I admit]

    But yes, it’s “God’s followers” that are the primary problem. It’s the whole notion of putting religious devotion above factual integrity that is worrying, not to mention the intolerance and exclusiveness of fanatics. Still, I don’t mind criticizing the notion of “God” over “His followers” – the notion of supernatural and counterfactual beliefs are the foundation for their actions; scrutinizing the basis for their beliefs is the first step to help them overcome such irrationality, in my opinion.


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