Wanted: A Nation of Bill Nyes. Making science mainstream, fun, and relevant. Part 1.

The United States rose to superpower status through a necessary, aggressive push towards innovation and scientific discovery in the last century. Many of the technologies developed in the last one hundred years were products of research funding by the U.S. government. In the old days, the gap between discovery/invention (public sector) and product development (private sector) was more easily traversed and companies were more than willing to take that leap. What scientists and engineers viewed was almost certainly drastically different from what consumers viewed, but either way, it was progress.

The world is a much different place now. Research funding (minus stimulus funding) has remained stagnant and the outlook is bleak.

Screen Shot 2012-12-13 at 1.40.19 PM.png

One of the overlooked aspects of this funding is the community outreach and broader impacts that result from grants. This includes money for paying undergraduates and graduate students for research conducted in the grantee’s lab. From personal experience, most of the undergraduates that came through our lab when I was a graduate student were STEM majors. However, this is misleading because the goal after receiving their B.S. was to attend a professional school including medical, dental, and pharmacy schools. To date, only one out of twenty or so undergraduates from our lab later attended a STEM graduate program.

Why aren’t more students interested in STEM?

“A society’s competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic table, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity”

Albert Einstein, 1953

What’s the Big Idea?: We Need to Focus on the Big Picture

global warming
Oh, the irony…
Photo credit: Flickr/Vineus

The Big Picture?

This week, the House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee unveiled the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act. This legislation wants to prioritize the way the National Science Foundation funds projects in life and chemical sciences, computer science, and mathematics based upon how the projects specifically address national needs. To increase the muddling between science and politics, the NSF would be required to justify the projects funded to Congress and how each benefits the national interests. The measure comes as the Republican-controlled House is pressured to cut federal spending and this would filter out projects with no tangible or timely returns. The bill would also limit the NSF from funding projects that already have funding from other federal agencies in an effort to prevent mission creep and double dipping. The bill fails to address how some projects are complex and have components that have benefits at multiple levels.

This legislation is the latest in a long line of efforts the GOP has used to hinder the scientific community from using its internal peer-review process to advance research and development which in turn would lead to the next generations of innovation desperately needed to sustain the United States’ leadership in science and technology. GOP efforts to appease the extremists within their party by slashing spending no matter who is affected are naive and short-sighted to say the least.

Beginning with the powers of the oil and gas industries masquerading as a conservative, grassroots Tea Party movement, conservatives have fought tirelessly to create an absurd climate debate instead of working on a bipartisan effort to ensure the sustainability of our planet. Congressional leaders have used ‘data’ gathered by conservative think tanks and biased institutes to assert the ‘science is still out’ about the man-made cause of climate change. Ultimately, what are their interests, protecting those who fund their elections or protecting…well, the rest of us? Who stands to lose by enacting cap-and-trade, emissions limits, or biofuel standards? The public as a whole? However, who wins if these and other efforts are in place to fortify our environment for future generations?

Also this week, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released the latest National Climate Assessment stating climage change is no longer a future threat. It’s here. Climatologists have sounded the alarm about global warming for over 30 years. Now the science is as solid as diamond and the consensus is strong. It is very apparent Congress will not actively take measures to grant future generations the awesome pleasure of enjoying our national parks as we have or enjoy time on local lakes or rivers. 

If there is something I’ve learned in the past couple weeks, it is the precious time we have with those we love can end at any moment. I cannot help but think what happens when I am gone? What do I leave behind? How can I show my children how much I loved them and wanted the best for them? It certainly is not doing everything possible to ensure I am victorious every election cycle by bowing to fundraisers.

What can we do to help?

 

It is past time to take back the power by electing members of Congress who can see the big picture by looking past this term in office to the selfless good they can do to help us all. The big picture is increasingly heating up as is our atmosphere.

Earth: This is Our One Shot, Don’t Blow It

Tomorrow morning, early tomorrow morning, my wife and I are heading to the hospital for a scheduled C-section. I’m going to meet my son. Over the next 20 years or so, my duty as a father is to mould and shape him into an honourable and respectable human being. This is something I do not take lightly for it is one of the purest legacies we leave.

I found myself watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Episode 13 this evening entitled: Who Speaks for Earth?. I was in awe of the profound and prophetic words and some points stuck with me. First, Sagan spends some time crafting an image of past civilizations with a comparison between the Greeks and Egyptians. With his explanation that Aristotle believed in two groups; Greeks and Barbarians, this concept rationalized the practice of slavery. There was no sense of a collective community to Aristotle. Sagan also explained the city of Alexandria as the first true cosmopolitan city. It was the heartbeat of innovation and discovery. Its library held invaluable volumes detailing observations and methods. It was not until the mob mentality of the religious deemed the library and its possessions as pagan that the library was razed to the delight of local politicians. It was at this point one of the most poignant statements I have ever heard was uttered…

History is full of people who out of fear or ignorance or the lust for power have destroyed treasures of immeasurable value which truly belong to all of us. We must not let it happen again.

Let that sink in….

My first instantaneous thought was of the Koch Brothers. Scientific discoveries do not belong to any one party or country. These discoveries belong to all of us because they tell of our shared kindredship. We are all in this together.

My second thought deals with the conviction Carl Sagan has to calm the rising nuclear storm among world powers, and he does it in blaring subtlety.  He could see the big picture; how all civilization could end within a short, short period of time. Thankfully, these tensions seem to have died down enough that it is not an imminent threat. But, it does remind me a very real, current threat in climate change. Perhaps, this is one reason the Cosmos series was revived.

In my opinion, the threats of climate change are much more dangerous. The outcome would be the same, total destruction, but the impacts are so subtle most don’t catch the trends. Even when all factual evidence points toward environmental collapse in the mid-range future, many do not see it as imminent or requiring even short-term mitigation.

Earth. We were given a beautiful home. Let’s not blow it.

Jumping on the Carl Sagan Bandwagon (And Following the Laws of Physics)

Carl Sagan. Just Science

Embarrassingly, I have to admit something. Despite my overwhelming love of science and passion for teaching science to others, I grew up not knowing whom Carl Sagan was. Back story: I grew up in East Tennessee, the son of a mechanic and a bookkeeper. I never even opened one of Sagan’s books until my 30s. I must say, it was my loss.

I have had the privilege of listening to the stories from those who knew Carl Sagan personally. He sounded like such a sweet, endearing person that the world desperately needed and unfortunately still does. By today’s standards, Sagan was a cosmic anomaly harnessing the knowledge from learning, the oration of a great leader, and the passion to spread the wonders of the universe to the masses.

Since the premier of the new production of Cosmos, listening to everyone talk of Sagan makes him sound like a god, but he was something even more great. Carl Sagan was a genuine, compassionate human being. He saw the big picture, even though it is too often clouded by politics and special interests, as what it was; our collective, solitary home among the vast cosmos. Our home has problems that must be addressed and these problems will continue to grow without intervention. Sagan knew a curious, enlightened society could be a force for change.

I wish I had known Carl Sagan, knowing how he has touched the lives of those who encountered him. Neil deGrasse Tyson has had enormous shoes to fill by assuming the role of navigator through the Cosmos. It is our turn to do our part as science communicators to ensure Sagan’s legacy rekindled is not in vain.