Over at Pacific Standard this week, I look at Arizona State University’s fascinating Project Hieroglyph – a project to inspire us to think big with science fiction. The project, inspired in part by Neal Stephenson, just put out an excellent anthology of SF edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, featuring thought experiments worked out as SF stories.
In the preface to the anthology, Stephenson looks back at the great technological achievements of the mid-20th century, notably the Apollo program, and worries that we are no longer a society that can get big things done. We’re unwilling to think big, attempt truly ground-breaking ideas, or solve society’s biggest problems. We need to unshackle our imaginations, and SF can help us do that.
You can read my response at Pacific Standard, but here’s the tl/dr version:
Scientists and engineers have plenty of imagination. What they don’t always have are the incentives and support to take big intellectual risks. Making the case that we should tackle big ideas that might fail is Project Hieroglyph’s most valuable contribution. Neal Stephenson writes that “the vast and radical innovations of the mid-twentieth century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable.” Pursuing insanely dangerous ideas—like nuclear weapons—is probably not the best way to build a better society. But risking failure is critical in science and technology. Unfortunately, failure is expensive, and the lack of money is probably the best explanation for why our society isn’t “executing the big stuff” that Stephenson wants to see. Scientists facing increasingly poor career prospects become risk-averse. Venture capitalists who complain that they only have 140 characters instead of flying cars are nevertheless hesitant to fund the expensive and risky development of technology that could be genuinely transformative. We certainly need imagination in science, and we should tell inspiring stories about big ideas. But to realize those ideas, we have to pay for them.
Mike Eisen makes an excellent point about NIH Director Francis Collins’ recent claims:
But what really bothers me the most about this is that, rather than trying to exploit the current hysteria about Ebola by offering a quid-pro-quo “Give me more money and I’ll deliver and Ebola vaccine”, Collins should be out there pointing out that the reason we’re even in a position to develop an Ebola vaccine is because of our long-standing investment in basic research, and that the real threat we face is not Ebola, but the fact that, by having slashed the NIH budget and made it increasingly difficult to have a stable career in science, we’re making it less and less likely that we’ll be equipped to handle all of the future challenges to public health that we’re going to be face in the future.
You can make a better case about the direct impact of funding cuts with the shrinking budget CDC Public Health Preparedness Funding, as Judy Stone notes over at Scientific American.
One of my favorite science historians, Daniel Kevles, has a brief, insightful New Yorker piece that puts this year’s chemistry Nobel Prize in context:
Trying to see the fine structure of a cell with a light microscope is akin to attempting to discern the individual trees in a forest from a jetliner at thirty thousand feet.
Kevles explains how Betzig and Hell were obsessed with breaking the “Abbe limit,” the physical principle that the resolution of light microscopes is limited to the wavelength of light. Each of them figured out how to “argue with the laws of physics,” using some brilliant tricks with fluorescence. To someone outside of biology it may sound strange, but the development of fluorescent imaging and tagging technologies is turning out to be one of the most important developments in the history of biology, at least as revolutionary as the initial development of the microscope.
The NY Times ran an op-ed by a Maryland Congressional representative arguing that younger biomedical investigators, who are at what should be the most creative time of their careers, are getting screwed in the current funding climate. He suggests that Congress should force the NIH to change this:
Congress should also mandate that the median age of first research awards to new investigators be under 40 within five years, and under 38 within 10 years. Failure to meet these benchmarks would result in penalties for the N.I.H., including possible funding cuts.
But people aren’t just getting funded later – it looks like they’re getting their first tenure-track jobs later as well. There are probably proportionally fewer younger investigators that the NIH could fund. The average age at which people get their first assistant professorships at U.S. medical schools appears to have climbed steadily, closely tracking the rise in age of investigators getting their first R01s. (There are some conflicting data; my guess is that it’s important to distinguish between first tenure-track job at any institution (NSF survey), and first tenure-track job at medical schools (AAMC data), where most people who apply for R01’s work.) This shouldn’t be surprising – competition for faculty jobs is growing, and as the economist Paula Stephan has argued, there is some evidence that those who go on to tenure track jobs do longer postdocs than those who don’t. This isn’t a problem that will be solved by forcing the NIH to fund more younger investigators.
“Deinonychosauria” (Cladistic Heraldry) by David Orr (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission)
Should Deinonychus*, the clawed dinosaur that was the actual inspiration for the velociraptors of Jurassic Park‘s, have lean, Sting-like cheeks or chipmunk cheeks under their feathers?
In a recent post, paleontologist Mark Witton looks at the research on Deinonychus bite strength and how it should influence PaleoArt depictions of this iconic animal.
*While I am on the record with my belief that I could win a fight with a single Velociraptor, I have no doubt that I would lose against a Deinonychus and die slowly as it perched upon my mangled body leisurely consuming my innards.
HT: Tommy Leung