AUSTIN—A regular feature of American Astronomical Society conferences is an evening lecture on the state of science funding. Let's just say it's not a great date night. There have been happy counterexamples, but usually you spend an hour and a half hearing about the latest budget cuts and walk out of the room in a depleted hush. This year, Steve Weinberg's talk, billed as "Big Science in Crisis," promised more of the same. Much of it was a downer. But it also did something unusual and oddly cathartic by connecting the downward slope of science support to the country's broader social malaise.
"We may see, in the next decade, an end to the search for the laws of physics," the eminent physicist said. The Large Hadron Collider may well be the last of its kind—governments will probably balk at anything bigger. The James Webb Space Telescope has sucked the oxygen out of other projects and, even so, may be going the way of the Superconducting Supercollider. Elsewhere at the meeting, NASA indicated that major astrophysics missions may now occur only one every several decades. Little Science is in even bigger trouble. A National Science Foundation official told astronomers that there was only enough money this year to fund one in six grant proposals. Conversations over coffee (preferably, beer) routinely turn to the job vacuum that postdocs, in particular, face.
Meanwhile, Weinberg said, American schools, infrastructure, and Internet access all suffer by comparison to other rich countries; the courts and patent office are hopelessly backlogged; prisons are inhumanely overcrowded; and sick people can't get health care. Compared with these pressing needs, pure science seems like pure indulgence. In its defense, scientists cite technological spinoffs or, as Weinberg did, the powerful cultural benefits of knowing about the world we live in. But perhaps the strongest case is that when money is taken from science, it never goes to those other programs. In practice, they all swim or sink together.
Rather than squabble amongst themselves, advocates for all these programs should realize that the real trouble lies elsewhere: a pervasive underinvestment in public goods of all sorts. The country's political masters accept public squalor to enable private splendor. "It's a fallacy to think these things cannot be afforded," Weinberg said.
My first reaction was that it seemed imprudent to link science so explicitly to a liberal political agenda. My second reaction was that the American right already equates the two, so what's to lose?
Weinberg's sentiments are colored by his experience trying to save the SSC, which provided him an endless string of anecdotes about the failures of our political system. The cancellation of such projects, he suggested, has less to do with cost per se than with pork-barrel politics. The SSC got all sorts of praise from Congress—until the moment a site was chosen, when passionate advocates abruptly turned outspoken enemies because the supercollider would superconduct in someone else's district. If anything, more expensive projects (Weinberg singled out the International Space Station) fare better because they have more action to get a piece of. Any putative successor to the LHC will face the same logic. Nations will gush about plumbing the depths of nature, and then one will be chosen for the site.
As for the cost overruns that plague projects, Weinberg suggested they are also often the product of politics, which gets in the way of efficient project management. I'm not sure I entirely buy that, but he did acknowledge that infighting among physicists contributed to the collapse of the SSC.
As a group, academic scientists are privileged—their pay is sad compared to bankers, doctors, or lawyers, but they get to do what they love. Yet the funding woes of science has never been about individual scientists. It is about what kind of society we want to live in.