Challenges ahead….

To my mind progress in science faces some pretty steep challenges in the years ahead. Chief among them is the follow-on economic damage of the Great Recession. Across the World, but particularly in North America and Europe, sovereign debt, structural deficits and political paralysis are beginning to threaten governmental support for scientific research. Here in the US, the election silly season combined with automatic sequestration cuts, increasingly make the FY13 scientific budget look pretty gloomy.  In Europe, depending how the Euro crisis pans out, the ability of Brussels to go ahead with its ambitious Horizon 2020 plan is perhaps open to question. Moreover, even in Asia, there are economic clouds which have potential to derail the massive investments in science currently taking place. I worry most about the need for China to boost domestic demand in the face of reduced exports to Europe and America. If China can’t do that smoothly, then there could well be significant instability, both economic and potentially social. And the consequences for Chinese science could well be dire.

Another challenge, especially here in the States, are the increasingly frequent attacks on the credibility of scientists. This is part of a politicization of science, both with respect to scientific theories (which serve as surrogates for “culture wars”) and scientists themselves, as they find themselves drawn into those culture wars. I’ve blogged about this danger here quite recently. The upshot is, that when the general public, upon whose taxpayer dollars science depends, stops trusting science and scientists, then science progress runs into a brick wall.

Finally, Globalism itself is being challenged and with it the massive international collaborations (think LHC, Hubble, Antarctica, ISS) which make up “big science”. Many of the truly daunting scientific problems absolutely require a transnational approach. I can’t imagine a successful single country approach to pandemic flu, to say nothing of climate change, energy production or cracking the human “mind”.

Addressing those challenges wont be easy and will certainly require the sustained contributions of scientists and their supporters. Above all, it may require many scientists to look beyond the “bench” for a bit and to reach out to their colleagues, not only to collaborate scientifically, but to protect a larger scientific agenda.

Looking towards 2012

As we close out 2011, I’m looking forward to an incredibly exciting 2012 for the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.  During the new year, we will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of our Center for Social Complexity this next year, one of the real gems in the Institute’s science portfolio. At the same time, we will be launching our unique symposium with the Santa Fe Institute on The Science of Complexity: Understanding the Global Financial Crisis. Finally, we will be welcoming a new University President, Angel Cabrera on July 1.

The Economist weighs in on state finances

One of my favorite newspapers (their term–it sure looks like a magazine) views the current fiscal disasters of the U.S. states (e.g. California) through the Keynesian lens here. Basically being forced constitutionally to balance their budgets, the states are being forced to raise taxes and cut spending–exactly the opposite of what John Maynard Keynes would have recommended under the current circumstances.

The agonies of the academy

Andrew Delbanco in the NY Review of books–money quote:

In short, the financial crisis not only is threatening the livelihood of faculty and staff but is also degrading the experience of students. And despite the big hit on the big endowments, the further you go down the hierarchy of prestige, the worse the effects. For instance, the chancellor of the Connecticut community college system recently informed faculty that the first phase of the governor’s proposed budget cuts would require limiting student enrollment, reducing service in libraries and laboratories, and cutting back on the availability of advising, remedial tutoring, and childcare. On the West Coast, things are no better: San Jose State University has been forced by budget reductions to turn away thousands of qualified applicants for the first time in its hundred-year history.[9]

For years, we have witnessed a growing gap between rich and poor colleges, the privatization of public universities, and aggressive if not reckless investment and spending practices at wealthy institutions, where the allure of gain appears to have overwhelmed the consciousness of risk. Now we are also witnessing drastic budget contraction at the most fragile and vulnerable institutions. Higher education has always been a mirror of American society—and, for the moment, at least, the image it reflects is not a pretty one.