The scientific community is feeling anxious. Sorry to interrupt your research, but the “fasten seat belt sign” has been illuminated. The President’s budget proposes large cuts to science funding: a $6 billion cut at the National Institutes of Health, a $900 million cut at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and deep cuts to the science of the Earth at NASA and other agencies.
How should scientists respond? How should science philanthropies respond?
Personally, I’ve been drawing on a recent experience.
Dozing while flying over Greenland, coming home from a meeting about the Hubble Space Telescope, the captain’s voice disrupted my dream-state. “Passengers are kindly requested to securely their seat belts fasten.”
I nudged the woman I love—“I really am getting better at understanding German.” She took off her noise-cancelling earphones and looked me in the eyes. “Wake up. That was English.”
Up in the cockpit, they say they wear harnesses all the time. They change altitude when the ride gets rough. Change course, not so much. At 9 miles a minute, turbulent patches are brief: Frankfurt to San Francisco takes 10 hours. It’s better to keep the long-range goal in mind, endure a few bumps, and stay on course.
Like flying home from Europe, science is a long-term enterprise. Our goal: to create the joy of discovery driven by curiosity and offer the possibility of future benefits for generations ahead. Before I was born, physicists were messing around with atomic nuclei using magnets and radio pulses to measure the esoteric nuclei spin; decades later my orthopedist uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging to probe the torn muscles of my quadriceps. Benefits of basic research come from surprising directions and after a long journey
We know this works: invest in basic science, be patient, and reap the benefits to society in surprising ways. Try to think of something useless in your daily life. Perhaps Einstein’s General Relativity? While his work seems inaccessible at first, it is not irrelevant. Albert’s insights about gravity are essential to get the right GPS location on your phone! How about Quantum Mechanics? Not just spooky zen-like weirdness of particles acting like waves acting like particles, but the key to understanding how to make electronic devices that work. Perhaps the weirdness of quantum entanglement itself will be the essential part of quantum computers tomorrow. Reading and writing the genetic code? We don’t yet know precisely how to use this best, but it has revolutionized understanding of biology and will surely have benefits for human health. Stay tuned, stay hopeful, and don’t eat the seed corn.
The daily news cycle doesn’t favor the long view over today’s turbulence. Yet, on March 25, President Trump’s Saturday weekly address extolled work with the Hubble Space Telescope, “We look to the heavens with wonder and curiosity.” The President referred to the Hubble Deep Field saying, “…the unforgettable image did not satisfy our deep hunger for knowledge…it reminded us how much we do not know about space; frankly, how much we do not know about life.” Exactly right! For scientists, today’s ignorance is our greatest resource for future discovery.
But the science budget proposed by the President is not a good one for exploring the unknown. Let’s hope the people preparing the fleshed-out budget take a look at the President’s speeches! The vacant office of President’s Science Adviser is not a good sign. The President acknowledges there is a lot we don’t know, but it is hard to see how we are going to tap our resevoirs of ignorance without steady support for our drilling rigs.
How can scientists and science philanthropies respond?
The scientists I know are fully engaged in their work. They love their work. They wish the rest of the world would just leave them alone so they can get on with it without distraction. But when the political air around science is turbulent, some scientists are unbuckling their belts and getting out of their seats for a one-day March for Science. It is a little uncomfortable. The best sign I saw through the drizzle in Washington was “I can’t believe we have to do this.”
Nobody wants to act like just another special interest—but science is for the long term good of the nation, not just the scientists. The march sprung from a sense of defiance, yet it has the potential to be a moment of national engagement with scientific ideas.
In any case, a one-day event is not enough. Scientists should tithe the time to reach out to the public, to engage with media new and old, and to work with legislators and policy makers to convey the excitement of their work and to make the case that supporting the scientific enterprise is a wise choice for the long run. For the most part, they should do the work that makes science deserve public support and creates new possibilities for a better future, but these other actions are needed, too.
For science philanthropies, the most important thing is to fund that work, accelerate progress, and create hope for a better future. No one should have the illusion that private philanthropy can fill the void that big cuts in the Federal budget will excavate. The Science Philanthropy Alliance gauges annual giving to science at about $2 Billion. Bill and Melinda Gates, Jim and Marilyn Simons, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, and Yuri Milner and (dare I say) Gordon and Betty Moore have been astonishingly generous in their support of science. They built fortunes from businesses built on the technology of the physical world, or deep insights based on mathematics and logic. But total giving from philanthropy to science is small compared to the proposed cuts in federal support for science. Six billion in cuts to NIH alone. Two billion in philanthropy to science of all kinds. Do the math! Six is a lot bigger than two!
Philanthropies can also help highlight the value of science, and we should. We can help ensure that unbiased facts and scientific understanding are available to people who set policy, and we will. There may be a few areas, like environmental monitoring, where philanthropies can band together to help bridge an otherwise irreparable gap in data, but we cannot patch billion dollar rips in the funding tapestry. Mostly, we should not get distracted: we should continue to focus on our goal, using our limited resources well to support science for its own sake. We know this works to everyone’s benefit. Turbulence is brief. Goals take longer.
Maybe it would help if the President acts to deepen the sense of wonder and curiosity that the Hubble Deep Field evoked. That’s a beginning for engagement with science. It would be great if he would travel to see the total eclipse of the sun that will run across our country from sea to shining sea on August 21. The All-American eclipse. A total eclipse can be a life-changing experience. It makes you know in your bones that the moon is in orbit around the Earth and it makes you feel small. During the black Sun of a total eclipse, even rational people tap into primitive hope that the Sun will emerge from darkness and shine brightly again on all of us. If you have Air Force One at your disposal, you could fly above the weather and stretch out the duration of totality. You could bring some school children along for a once in a lifetime experience. The Moore Foundation is sending a million pairs of eclipse glasses to public libraries. We’d be happy to send some to the White House. This eclipse can make America awed again.