Saturday, February 7, 2009

Response to Physics vs. Medicine

Kenneth Chang of the wonderful blog TierneyLab has pointed out the double-standard in trimming physics out of the stimulus package while increasing funding for biomedical research. Now, I’m a molecular biologist, but my housemate is a laser-particle physicist, so here's my 2 cents:

It’s terrible to see science cuts in any field, but unfortunately these cuts reflect the priorities of average Americans. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the NIH budget increase reflects only 1% of what our government is putting towards the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The question has never been physics vs. medicine, and merely by posing it in this way you do a disservice to both. The question is education/research vs. military spending. Our US budget is ~25%-40% military, depending on who you ask. This is a waste of money that could be spent on research and education.

There are other nations, such as Singapore and Japan, whose citizens prioritize science. Ours does not. When this changes, you will find that there is plenty of money for both physics and medicine.

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4 comments:

Dave L said...

I’m not sure what you mean by “this is a waste of money.” Are you saying that the US spends too much on its military, or are you saying that all military spending is a waste of time? Defense is one of the primary duties that a nation owes to its citizens. Every country on the planet (except Vatican City and maybe San Marino and Andorra) has a defense budget.

By the way, Japan purposely limits its military spending as part of a de-militarization policy following World War II. Japan depends on the US for a substantial portion its defense needs. I’m not sure what the situation is with Singapore, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she also depends on the US.

I should also point out that the defense budget includes large portions of R&D for applied physics/engineering. Some very useful technology (such as GPS) comes from that R&D.

Samurai Scientist said...

Are you saying that the US spends too much on its military, or are you saying that all military spending is a waste of time? Defense is one of the primary duties that a nation owes to its citizens.

I'm not sure who you think the great military threat is these days, but if you want to keep some weapons for self-defense, that's fine by me. But what justifies spending a quarter or more of our national budget on new weapons building? Let's face facts: the Pentagon is greedy and selfish.

I should also point out that the defense budget includes large portions of R&D for applied physics/engineering.

Really? What percentage of the defense budget actually goes towards R&D for actual physics and engineering? I'd guess it's around 5-10%. The rest goes towards weapons development and sustaining our huge army (both past and present).

Anyways, if you want to shuttle money into R&D, just do it directly, through the universities or businesses. Anything done through the DOD requires some kind of military application.

Dave L said...

“I'm not sure who you think the great military threat is these days,”

The “great existential threat” to the US is Al Qaeda. Also, general world threats that affect/involve the US are an expansionist China, a revolutionary Iran, an unstable and dangerous North Korea, and a Russia bent on taking back some its former territory and power. While the US doesn’t have to confront those threats by itself, for better or worse, the US is most powerful country on the planet right now. If the US stepped back right now, it would cause arms races (where, by the way, the percentage of government spending in many countries would be the same as the US) and could lead to some ugly regional conflicts that could spin out of control (e.g. China invading Taiwan).

Not to mention the US commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan. By the way, President Obama (the man whose name is emblazoned on your Facebook profile picture) wants to increase the US troop presence in Afghanistan.

“but if you want to keep some weapons for self-defense, that's fine by me.”

So it’s OK to keep a few machine guns in mothballs and three coast guard patrol boats for each ocean? Phew, I thought that you were advocating some unrealistic steps.

“Let's face facts: the Pentagon is greedy and selfish.”

That is probably true, even Eisenhower warned of that 50 years ago. And a lot of the defense budget surely is wasted, especially in light of the way people move so freely between being employed by the government to being employed by defense industries.

Also, my point about R&D in the defense budget is that not all of the money is “lost” to science, since that seems to be the major complaint in your post.

Samurai Scientist said...

@Dave L,
While the US doesn’t have to confront those threats by itself, for better or worse, the US is most powerful country on the planet right now. If the US stepped back right now, it would cause arms races (where, by the way, the percentage of government spending in many countries would be the same as the US) and could lead to some ugly regional conflicts that could spin out of control (e.g. China invading Taiwan).

I think you give the US government a lot of credit. And I don't blame you. I used to think the same way.

But over time, I've become a skeptic. Things are the way they are because of inertia. That is the main reason.

The US no longer faces any real existential threats. We faced one for fifty years. But that threat is gone. China is not interested in war - they are much smarter than that. BTW, the US has recognized for a long time that there is only one China - the communist one.

As you say, the US is the most powerful country in the world. We have been for 20 years. This was our opportunity to change the world, to make it truly a more peaceful place. To set an example. To use the bully pulpit. We could have used it for world peace, but we didn't. We used it to make money.

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