Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Iron Man & Scientists...

Lately, it seems that being a scientist is cool. This has been a seesaw over the years. Everyone wanted to be a rocket science during the space race. On the other hand, no one dreams of being Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, or Dr. Strangelove. Engineering of the type that produces 007 gadgets has certainly been popular. But lately it seems that advancing fundamental knowledge about nature—science—is being recognized as a critical driver for technology and our economy. That is scientists aren't far from the ├╝ber cool title of entrepreneur. To wit, in the make-believe world that appears to form our culture's reality, Tony Stark is able to keep himself alive in Iron Man II because he discovers how to create a new high-energy containing element. It's fiction, of course. Nevertheless, it illustrates the present positioning of science in a critical role for advancing/saving our world from the current challenges in the environment, energy and health sectors. It also says that being a scientist is cool again.

Unfortunately most scientists don't have Tony Stark's resources, and they need money to pay for the experiments and the highly-trained human capital required to run them. Meanwhile the nation's science budgets are being cut. So how can we leverage the nation's recognition that science is a critical economic driver to affect our nation's scientific policy and its level of investment therein? Equally importantly, how do we articulate the need for continual investment in such long-term payoffs in favor of say, balancing the budget today? A key idea lies in the fact that today's solutions come from investments made years ago. So those solutions won't be there in 20 years if we don't make the investments now. Again, this is very convincing to a scientist, but how convincing is it to a member of Congress who is looking at reelection in two years?! Sadly, the analogy to Iron Man also holds true here because the fictional politicians are often equally unconvinced...

2 comments:

  1. Rigoberto, the mayor problem with the Stark type of scientist is that he is a super rich guy, working out of his basement, doing whatever he likes. This is not compatible with the view most of us held of a scientist involved in teaching others, and having to request federal funds for her/his research and in fact reinforces the popular view of crazy guys taht do science more or less as a hobby.

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  2. Adrian: I completely agree that Stark is not the model we aspire to be. But do note that there have been legendary scientists who broke away from the federal funding model by funding their own science. Kent Wilson (http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/science/mcwilson.htm) is one such example. His effort is particularly laudable because he continued to participate in peer-reviewed publications and all the other aspects necessary to continue scientific discourse. Note also that as emerging scientists, you and I probably didn't dream about the extent of effort we would have to invest to obtain funds so to maintain our research effort. That said, your main point is that the glass is half-empty with respect to Stark. And this is true. I'm simply arguing that it's half-full because the crazy scientist is on the side of saving the world and not the other way around.

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