18 October 2012

Mixing it up: science and politics

Roger Angel's prototype solar module
based in a spaceframe to continuously
track the sun. Image © REhnu
Sitting in a conference room, listening to Roger Angel (REhnu and College of Optical Sciences, University of Arizona) talk about how he is refocusing astronomical instrumentation to build highly efficient, cheaper solar cells, or watching Eva-Marie Sevick-Muraca (University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston) show the first-ever video of lymphatic flow inside a human being, or hearing Mario Paniccia (Intel) talk about the amazing advances in computing speed that are around the corner in silicon photonics … well, politics is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind.

But politics definitely does come to mind at some point, and most scientists recognize the importance of the relationship between the two spheres. Today’s endorsement by 68 Nobel Prize winners in science of the candidacy of President Barack Obama for re-election is one illustration.

You can read what they said about their endorsement in a story in the NewYork Times.

Cut science first?

As to why they felt inspired to do so, consider this:

Recent polling in the United States indicates that in a time of tight federal budgets, a majority of people would cut science budgets first.

It is not a trust issue: People said they believe that scientists are “good people."

But, while people value medical and energy research, they see little value in science beyond that: they don’t recognize the benefits.  So when science is stacked against other federal priorities, public support for science erodes.


Clip from UT HSC lymphatic flow video.
As many as 65 million people watched the second round of Presidential debates on Tuesday. The complete transcript was available to download within a few hours, and photos and video clips were instantly share-able throughout the live broadcast. Voters and pundits have been responding since the broadcast opened with blog posts, email messages, news reports and commentary, and text messages.

All of this is enabled by photonics.

Without photonics-enabled cameras, communications systems, computers, phones, and other devices, only a roomful of people, their friends and neighbors, and local newspaper readers would have the information by now.

Development of much of this technology has been supported by federal funds for research and engineering -- notably the Internet, on which many of those messages travelled.

From NIST: Artist's conception of JILA's
advance in atomic force microscope
(AFM) design.  To measure picoscale
forces in liquid, a AFM probe attaches
to a molecule such as DNA and pulls,
and the deflection of the probe is measured.
JILA researchers found that probes
with the gold coating removed (purple
in the illustration) make measurements that
are 10 times more stable and precise
than those made with conventional gold-coated
probes. Gold helps reflect the laser light
but it can also potentially crack, age,
and creep, which degrades its mechanical
properties and reduces measurement
precision. Credit: Baxley/JILA
That’s just one example of an area of daily life that is directly impacted by federally funded research and engineering in optics and photonics. Among others:
  • A team at University of Texas, Dallas, will be using a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to engineer flexible solar cells that can be produced more cost-effectively, and can even be used on portable devices or clothing.
  • Five companies working to develop trusted electronic identity technologies to combat identity theft, protect online transactions, and secure information sharing have received support from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST-funded projects also help keep bridges and othe infrastructure safe through non-destructive measuring technologies, and advance computing through work by scienists such as David Wineland, the 2012 winner of NIST's fourth Nobel Prize in physics in the past 15 years..
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have been a major sponsor of research at the University of California, Irvine, where biomedical research includes projects such as non-invasive imaging techniques to detect cancers and heart disease at much earlier stages, and more accurately.
  • A long list of products and innovations ranging from invisible braces and scratch-resistant eyeglass coatings, to digital cameras and medical imaging technologies, to satellite communications systems, the internet, and many more have been derived from inventions patented by NASA, the European Space Agency, and other agencies and organizations as a result of space exploration.

Follow the money

Summary of NRC report.
And don’t forget the economy. Public companies focused on optics and photonics enable an estimated 7.5 million jobs and create more than $3 trillion dollars in the U.S. annually. These are primarily high-value jobs. (Look for more on the economic impact of the field in follow-up on the release of the National Research Council report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation.")

The idea of putting future technology development and tomorrow's economic vitality at risk as a result of cutting science budgets deserves careful scrutiny.

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