America's Science Decline - Neil deGrasse Tyson


  1. Ah, it's Neil deGrasse Tyson. And by that I mean he takes three minutes to make a point that could be made in 30 seconds, and I'm still not sure what the point is. Science is unevenly distributed? Papers per km^2 is a useful unit of measurement? America is doomed?

    Okay, I'm just cranky and undercaffeinated, but if you poke around in the NSF data , you'll see that funding for science has increased every year, and has in fact been essentially constant as a percentage of the Federal budget, even with the "Republican War on Science" under Bush and Boehner. Is America falling behind in science (bad) or is the rest of the world catching up? (okay)

    And finally, the $31.7 billion question (that's the NIH's budget, btw): How does research funding translate into scientific papers? And do scientific papers translate into concrete advances that improve people's lives? (cause right now they don't really: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/02/helping-new-drugs-out-of-academias-valley-of-death/)

  2. America *is* falling behind, and broadly speaking, needs to step up infrastructure investment on all fronts. That means Science too.

    America benefits immeasurably from being at the center of many scientific fields. The last thing America needs is a brain drain, which is quite conceivable for at least some fields in the next ten years if Science funding is not increased.

    Another issue is that due to our terrible immigration laws, we need to have a significant funding advantage to attract young talent, which increasingly comes from overseas due to the comparative weakness of American high schools. Really, both funding and immigration laws need to be significantly improved.

    Biff, as I see it, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is taking a page out of Al Gore's book -- the only way that you will get laypeople to watch you talk about graphs is if some of it is slightly ridiculous. Specifically, I'm recalling Al Gore getting a ladder or a fork lift or whatever it was to help him point out how dramatic the hockey stick graph is. The worst you could say about it is that its distracting from the seriousness of the subject matter to "dumb down" his presentation with silliness. But he has to keep his audience in mind, and be memorable at all costs. Of course if I saw an academic paper measuring papers/km^2... I would be singing a different tune.

  3. Lets see ... I put this up here because it puzzled me. I don't see how this could be a plot of the change in science funding, because surely that would give some countries negative area. There must be more details. I this talk doesn't mean US is shrinking relative to the rest of the world, just that it is growing less quickly. Which, for all we know, may just mean that we've developed to the point of saturation and the growth of science in other nations will slow similarly as they increase capacity. If, however, this is actually showing a decline in the fraction of global 'science' produced in the US, I think NdGT's point might hold. The US is being outpaced by other nations at at some point this will have an impact on our economy and standing in the world. It may not be now, but perhaps in 5, 10, 20 years, we might see the long term effects of losing leadership in science. I'm not even sure this is a bad thing, as Biff said, if other countries outstrip us, but there is still overall growth, science wins. The only negative outcome is relative : the US will lose its lead in innovation, and will suffer economically as a result. Bad for those of us in the states, but maybe not so bad for the world. That said, I feel like the general tone of this talk is "invest in science now or china will destroy us", which appeals to me on some level : channeling the competitive nationalism into energies that build rather than destroy wealth and knowledge.

  4. Righto, two things. First the fun one, better infographics to explain science. One common metaphor for science is that it's like a building. You start from elementary theories and build everything up (and occasionally, when there's a paradigm shift, say from Classical Physics to Quantum, you tear it all down and start over). This is a bad metaphor, because it says that what we're doing now is either putting the finishing touches on an edifice that's been under construction for 100 years, which is dull and implies we can stop at some point, or we're tearing down a structure which by and large explains the universe as we see it, and doesn't make much sense.

    Another visual metaphor might be science as an orchard, something that requires careful tending and produces something which is valuable yet perishable. Yes, this knocks science off it's pedestal as the source of absolute and eternal truth, but guys, I study scientific controversies for a living, and on a lot of issues (climate change, the safety of nuclear power, GMOs, vaccines, etc) large sections of the population *already* believe that science is a pack of lies. They're wrong, and I hope they die of preventable diseases at a young age, but they can't be ignored.

    The case for public support of science has long been "trust us, fund us, and we'll deliver miracles" That was in 1945, and the miracles of science have either turned into the boring fabric of everyday life or existential threats. We depend on federal science funding to keep the lights on in our universities, but if the NSF/NIH is going to be anything beyond a welfare agency for people with PhDs, scientists have to make a more durable case for why science is a valuable contributor to the public good.

    Finally, I largely agree with both of you about threats to American national competitiveness. We've crippled our primary education system and it's starting to affect graduate scientific training (seriously, how many Americans do you guys work with?). And the more screwed up our own economy, immigration laws, and culture get, the more likely our trained scientists are to be brain-drained away. But how much money would we have to dump into science funding to restore our competitiveness? And for how long? Graduate training is about making future PIs, and right now the main employer of PIs are federal funding agencies. Think about federal budgets, and think about the effects of compounded research funding over the long term--it's ugly, and I'm about as Left as a person can get on economic matters.

    There's more the science policy than funding, and there's more to restoring American competitiveness than science.

  5. A few quick notes ( since we discussed this offline ). The NIH /is/ working to deliver medical miracles, it just turns out that curing some diseases is a good deal harder than, say, landing on the moon. I believe yesterday there was a press releases about a promising Alzheimer's drug -- at least in mice. Note that we still need to see if the results transfer to humans, and whether there are any terrible side-effects, but this goes to show that science *is* working. As far as foreign PhDs... I think less than half of the graduate students in my department are from overseas. We still have a pretty strong research climate here. One could make a good argument that failures of public education in science and reasoning have as much an impact on science in this country as funding allocation. NdGT may miss some of the details, but I think for what he has to do -- drum up public enthusiasm and restore the belief that science and technology are necessary investments -- this talk was sufficient.

  6. Thanks for your interest in this snippet of a talk I gave. Without benefit of the entire presentation, or at least the surrounding commentary to this clip, you cannot possibly analyze it with accuracy. The data that show America shrinking refers to the change in the number per capita of peer reviewed science research papers in all fields. For America, that rate of change is negative. For Asia and Europe, it's positive. There is nothing here for anybody to agree or disagree with. One misstatement I made in the talk: the data compare 2000 with 1990, not 2010 with 2000. But there is no indication (anecdotal or otherwise) from the past decade that this trend has not continued as shown. Again, thanks for your interest. -NDTyson

  7. Man, the ocean is really good at science.

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    1. I'm curious as to what people's thoughts are on foreign PhD students and a (perceived/anecdotal/I dont have numbers to hand) increase in their numvers in the US. How much negative impact is this likely to have on US economics in a global corporate economy? Foreign graduates of american PhD progs may well end up working for american companies anyway and if they continue in the public sector then surely it's a case of best researcher for the grant in the pursuit of medical breakthroughs, keys to the universe and back to the future hover boards.

  9. Oh I also think we have to get our asses to Mars. A 12 year old girl in my class today told me space was boring, we need to fix this.

  10. Anonymous17.2.12

    ... I am a little in shock that our tiny blog is getting attention. That said, it's great to hear from you, Dr Tyson. I don't disagree with the data showing that America has not had an increase in scientific papers published per capita since 1990, I'm merely skeptical that that trend is actually a useful metric for the relevance of science to national decision-making or a America's future economic competitiveness. These issues are very, very complex, and just throwing more money at the major grant-writing agencies (NIH and NSF on the civilian side, and the entire DoD) will not solve them. We're on the same side, Dr. Tyson. I just hope that you can use your stature in the media to make a case for better science in the 21st century, and not rehash the positions from "Science: The Endless Frontier." I believe this video is a selection from Adventures of an Astrophysicist , and I look forward to continuing this discussion once I've seen your lecture in full.
    -- Michael BF

  11. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson rights. U.S. scientists become lazy.
    You slept through the creation of the theory of Superunification in Russia:

    1. Leonov V. S. Quantum Energetics. Volume 1. Theory of Superunification.
    Cambridge International Science Publishing, 2010, 745 pages.

    2. V.S. Leonov. Quantum Energetics: Theory of Superunification.
    Viva Books, India, 2011, 732 pages.

    Video: The tests 2009 of a quantum pulsed engine for generating thrust without the ejection of reactive mass.