I am an American and I am infuriated that my country’s government is (a) unable and unwilling to balance its books, (b) unable and unwilling to govern, because (c) a childish minority in Congress throws a temper tantrum, and (d) parental and political leadership fails to lead, guide, and compromise. The shut-down of the U.S. government only serves those who like to see America’s global scientific, economic, technological, and military leadership diminished. Today’s wars are a little more complex than just sending troops and money to remote places and start shooting; just have a look at the U.S. Army’s 2006 Field Manual No.3-24 (282 pages .pdf). Wars today are shooting and non-shooting battles over ideas of governance, communication, science, technology, logistics, tolerance, and civil ways that diverse people interact. All these domains need creative ideas leading to new social and scientific discoveries and innovations that shape future society and battles.
Many of the 800,000 government workers sent home 5 days ago as “non-essential” are scientists and engineers. They are friends, colleagues, and former students of mine who work for the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Climate Data Center (NCDC), National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), National Academy of Science, United States Geological Service (USGS), and many other agencies. Their work on both fundamental and applied challenges of an information-driven society requires well above average education and dedication at well below average pay. Their work does not go away because of a government shut-down, it just piles up, because smart “unessential” people prepared for this their own removal from their jobs: Many of the remotely sensing data systems in space, on land, in air, and under water all keep generating data that will need processing and analysis. The earth does not stop rotating …
For these ideas, discoveries, and creations to be made, we depend on the work by creative people in all sectors of society working together to create new knowledge. Some of this is done well in for-profit commercial Research and Development; but most is not, because larger transformative ideas and technologies often take 10-20 years of government and/or academic support before it becomes viable to make a profit. Some of this is threatened by the government shut-down, because the message sent by Congress is that none of this matters. I just give three examples why I think this matters alot:
1. The Global Position System was a military idea in the 1980ies that served no commercial purpose until 10-20 years later. Civilian agencies, scientists, and citizen explored and broadened GPS applications to the point that they are now everywhere, people now even play out-door treasure hunting games called “geocaching”. Related technologies of navigation and communication gave us cell-phones.
2.The first networked computers emerged in the 1970ies to become the internet in the 1990ies, again, the commercial benefits only came later to revolutionize the way we work, play, and fight. The instant exchange of information among people and instrument system makes our economies as efficient as they are. The ubiqueous smart-phones are nothing but portable and interconnected computers.
3. Sensing our earth from space by satellites gives us instant perspectives of evolving weather, storms, floods, snow, and anything that moves. Much of this work is done by NASA; it required budgets and initial investments that are beyond the abilities (or short-term interests) of commercial enterprises. Many layers of commercial and industrial application built atop NASA satellite data that is streamed freely to anyone anywhere.
It is degrading to all of us that our federal scientists, engineers, technicians are told that their scientific work does not matter, that it is not essential, that science is a luxury that we cannot afford. This is the message that the U.S. Congress is currently sending both to its own workers and those like myself who work with them. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I am an American who voted, served on criminal juries and advisory panels, testified before Congress, and paid taxes. I balance budgets both at home and at work. Am I expecting too much to be represented by a government that actually is open for business, does its job, and values those who work for the people while the talking heads, well, just talk?
ADDENDUM: Government shut-down may shut down US research in Antarctica for the entire 2013/14 field season, Nature reports Oct.-4, 2013.