Can Science Survive the 'Age of Austerity'?

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With budgets across the developed world in mortal danger, Nature's Joerg Heber asks a key question: how can science survive the age of austerity? In the long-term, everyone agrees you need science and technology R&D, but when budgets get tight, research into quantum dots or the fundamental forces that cause earthquakes has a hard time holding the line against health care or tax cuts for the richest Americans.

So, what's a science program to do? Heber suggests that different countries are taking different approaches. Japan is focusing on its most elite researchers, giving up to $50 million to 30 different people. Other countries are just giving up on some areas of research to focus on others; for example, take U.S. particle physicists, who will spend their careers trying to drive from the backseat as our European counterparts run the Large Hadron Collider.

If you're an American, perhaps the only heartening thing about Heber's article is that the rest of the developed world is just as willing as we are to hurt our long-term future for short-term political gains.

"Japan had a national debt exceeding its gross domestic product already before the earthquake, with science budget cuts implemented already then. It's even worse now," Heber wrote. "Most European countries are also reducing science funding. And that's not just Portugal or Greece. The UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland all are cutting back research. And what I hear from science policy makers in Germany, their relatively comfortable funding situation will not last forever either."

I'm sure there are marginally better or worse strategies for allocating research dollars. But it's far from an exact science, no matter what Big Science visionaries like Vannevar Bush and Alvin Weinberg once hoped. Countries have to throw money at R&D, knowing not all of it will result in, you know, the Internet or aeroplanes, but trusting that it makes sense anyway.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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