Is the US abandoning its position as a science superpower?

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StatGuy2000
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Hi everyone! I was reading another thread under Career Guidance and have found the following (credit from @Crass_Oscillator):

"China is aggressively attempting to displace the US as the world's scientific superpower, and the US is aggressively attempting to abandon it's scientific superpower status, while Europe seems all but recovered from WWII. ...."

My initial thought was that the statement above was an exaggeration (even taking into account the hostility exhibited by members of the recent Trump administration). According to the following Wikipedia article below, it doesn't appear as if the US is particularly sliding that far down in terms of scientific research funding.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_research_and_development_spending

I was wondering how the rest of you on PF feels on this regard.
 
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I have tunnel vision and am biased towards fundamental physics, so the enormous expenditures on applied experimental biology are worrying to me, since it's my view that biology advances are largely downstream of technological advances in applied physics, applied chemistry, and fundamental biology, which are downstream of fundamental physics and chemistry (although not always).

The trouble with investing so much into biology is that the big problems I have worked on in biology all depend on advances in computing and our ability to measure biological systems. Theoretical biology, which is an everyday component of biology performed by the experimentalists themselves, largely consists of barely meaningful cartoons and caricatures of reality. We're fumbling in the dark. This fumbling can produce important advances such as the discovery of anti-biotics, but these are extremely crude methods, as evident by the forthcoming (alleged) superbug crisis.

To measure and understand biological systems, you need simulations and experiments, which can barely obtain data on a single protein, much less tell you how its mechanism works. To say that simulating or measuring complex biological networks is in its infancy is to give it too much credit.

However, if one does not have these objections to our current view of biological research, then my statements about US science being in retreat are completely false.
 
  • #3
ZapperZ
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There are many anecdotal observations to point that, during the past 2 decades, there is a decline in "prestige" of physics funding and research in the US.

1. For the first time in the history of high energy physics, the birthplace of high energy physics experiment has ZERO high energy physics colliders (RHIC and CEBAF are nuclear facilities).

2. While Europe, China, and Japan are positioning themselves to host the next International Linear Collider, the US has been left as a spectator as HEP funding continues to decline.

3. While it is almost unheard of 20 years ago of Chinese physicists leaving US academic positions, this is now occurring more often as China seek to entice its natural talent back with generous funding and programs.

While we can argue that these are just anecdotal evidence, and while the US still leads the world in terms of total funding in science and engineering, there is a clear evidence that China, and even the rest of the world, are catching up very quickly as shown in the 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators.

Various major world civilizations throughout history have had their rise and subsequent decline. I've said elsewhere that, maybe 100 years from now, when history looks back at world civilization, I will not be surprised if they point to this 20-year period that marked the beginning of the decline of the US civilization.

Zz.
 
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  • #4
StatGuy2000
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There are many anecdotal observations to point that, during the past 2 decades, there is a decline in "prestige" of physics funding and research in the US.

1. For the first time in the history of high energy physics, the birthplace of high energy physics experiment has ZERO high energy physics colliders (RHIC and CEBAF are nuclear facilities).

2. While Europe, China, and Japan are positioning themselves to host the next International Linear Collider, the US has been left as a spectator as HEP funding continues to decline.

3. While it is almost unheard of 20 years ago of Chinese physicists leaving US academic positions, this is now occurring more often as China seek to entice its natural talent back with generous funding and programs.

While we can argue that these are just anecdotal evidence, and while the US still leads the world in terms of total funding in science and engineering, there is a clear evidence that China, and even the rest of the world, are catching up very quickly as shown in the 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators.

Various major world civilizations throughout history have had their rise and subsequent decline. I've said elsewhere that, maybe 100 years from now, when history looks back at world civilization, I will not be surprised if they point to this 20-year period that marked the beginning of the decline of the US civilization.

Zz.
I don't dispute that other nations around the world (in particular China, but also other Asian countries and other regions) are catching up to the US in terms of science funding and research, including physics research. And I don't necessarily see this as necessarily a bad thing, in so far as scientific advances and discoveries are a net positive for the entire world, not just a specific country.

What I don't necessarily conclude from the above that this is necessarily an indicator of the decline of US civilization (or, more restrictively, the decline of US science), for the following reasons:

1. The funding climate for science and technology in the US is not irreversible. While the current regime may not be particularly positively inclined for science funding, who can say what could happen in that realm in say, 4 or 8 years from now.

2. I don't see research in science and technology elsewhere in the globe as a zero-sum game, where advances in one nation must come at the expense of another. One possibility would be an increasing emphasis for collaborative ventures between different nations. My speculation would be that American researchers interested in HEP could or would be increasingly collaborating with European, Chinese, or Japanese researchers.
 
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2. I don't see research in science and technology elsewhere in the globe as a zero-sum game, where advances in one nation must come at the expense of another. One possibility would be an increasing emphasis for collaborative ventures between different nations. My speculation would be that American researchers interested in HEP could or would be increasingly collaborating with European, Chinese, or Japanese researchers.
Science is getting more global. The number of authors per paper increases, and the number of different countries (of its authors) per paper increases as well. Big projects like modern particle physics colliders and their experiments cannot be built by a single country, you need the expertise from people all around the world.

The US is still doing high-energy physics, for example. But they are doing this with colliders elsewhere in the world, like the LHC. The result? Most important meetings are in Europe. Most of the hardware is built in Europe. And most people in the field prefer jobs in Europe - why should you go to the US, where you are far away from the important meetings and where future funding is quite unclear?
Fusion research has a similar situation with ITER (under construction) and Wendelstein 7-X in Europe and declining funding in the US.
I guess climate science will follow.

This can be reverted, but the timescale is longer than the timescale of damaging the field. To attract experts you need experts, and you need the research sites. Not directly US related, but I have seen this pattern with developing countries: They rarely have particle physics departments. Even if they are interested in establishing them: How? No one wants to go there because no one is there. Everyone interested in particle physics goes to other countries to learn from and work with the experts there. It is not impossible to establish a new group, but it is very challenging.
 
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  • #6
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I have tunnel vision and am biased towards fundamental physics, so the enormous expenditures on applied experimental biology are worrying to me, since it's my view that biology advances are largely downstream of technological advances in applied physics, applied chemistry, and fundamental biology, which are downstream of fundamental physics and chemistry (although not always).

The trouble with investing so much into biology is that the big problems I have worked on in biology all depend on advances in computing and our ability to measure biological systems. Theoretical biology, which is an everyday component of biology performed by the experimentalists themselves, largely consists of barely meaningful cartoons and caricatures of reality. We're fumbling in the dark. This fumbling can produce important advances such as the discovery of anti-biotics, but these are extremely crude methods, as evident by the forthcoming (alleged) superbug crisis.

To measure and understand biological systems, you need simulations and experiments, which can barely obtain data on a single protein, much less tell you how its mechanism works. To say that simulating or measuring complex biological networks is in its infancy is to give it too much credit.

However, if one does not have these objections to our current view of biological research, then my statements about US science being in retreat are completely false.
You have a very ignorant view of biology.

Biology is the most important science. Physics is not going to offer you much solace when you or a loved one is dying from cancer or some other curable disease. You may wish the world had spent more on biology research, and less on the LHC, if you one day find yourself wasting away in a hospital bed, wishing you were born a few decades later when a cure will inevitably be available.
 
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ZapperZ
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You have a very ignorant view of biology.

Biology is the most important science. Physics is not going to offer you much solace when you or a loved one is dying from cancer or some other curable disease. You may wish the world had spent more on biology research, and less on the LHC, if you one day find yourself wasting away in a hospital bed, wishing you were born a few decades later when a cure will inevitably be available.
No, I think this is an equally ignorant view of the benefits that you have already acquired out of HEP experiments.

First of all, here in the US, the funding for NIH already dwarfs the funding for physics. So we are already funding significantly more on "biology".

Secondly, look at ALL the diagnostics that are used in medical research and medicine. You will notice that EVERY single one of them originated out of physics. Did you think biology originated PET scans? Do x-ray devices came out of nowhere and landed in biology? Are the synchrotron research centers all around the world that did so many research work on proteins and biologial tissues came out of biology? Did the LCLS at SLAC that is being used to study drug compounds and living bacteria and viruses came out of the understanding of biology?

And I haven't even gone into proton therapy and all the other direct medical applications of particle beams yet.

Zz.
 
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I've wondered about this from a different perspective. I'm not a scientist nor am I in the US. I wonder if 'science' is very much a money thing. Why not outsource it? On the whole it seems potential homegrown scientists are being abandoned to things like intelligent design and if you cannot afford or your patents cannot afford or you are not exceptional you have much less chance to reach your potential in science. Science is becoming like a separate class or cast within which there is a continual struggle between 'getting funding' and adhering to principles. Perhaps what's being squeezed out at the other end is the commercial scientist and I don't think that's a good way to 'breed' future scientists. For some reason Fritz Lang's Metropolis comes to mind. So, perhaps yes to the question. Though in my mind when I think of science 'super powers' I think of Germany and Russia, or perhaps rather the old Soviet Union. I don't know what China's putting into basic education but I imagine intelligent design isn't part of it.
 
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Obligatory XKCD reference:
degree_off.png

https://xkcd.com/1520/

That said, as a biophysicist, I recognize the importance of fundamental physics research in helping to design the next set of tools to spark new discoveries in all different fields as well as train scientists to think quantitatively (something that is increasingly important in biology). However, it is also my opinion that many of the most important and interesting open scientific questions fall under the realm of biology.

To answer the original question: science is expensive to do, so top scientists will go to where the money is. Currently, this is the US, not only for public funding of research, but also where most of the world's venture capital is as well for funding new start ups and other private sector ventures. This could change in the future depending on what happens to trends in the global economy, however.
 
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  • #10
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As far as I can tell, China has only one science Nobel for work done in China (Tu YouYou 2015) as opposed to some other Chinese born laureates (Tsai, Yang, Lee, Kao) who did their work in the West.

Where is the Chinese manned Moon landing? Twenty years out, in 2036? Where is the Chinese Space Telescope, open to use by the world's scientists? The Chinese human genome equivalent? Why didn't the South African Musk immigrate to China to build reusable boosters?

Meanwhile:
Chinese Students in America: 300,000 and Counting
 
  • #11
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As far as I can tell, China has only one science Nobel for work done in China (Tu YouYou 2015) as opposed to some other Chinese born laureates (Tsai, Yang, Lee, Kao) who did their work in the West.

Where is the Chinese manned Moon landing? Twenty years out, in 2036? Where is the Chinese Space Telescope, open to use by the world's scientists? The Chinese human genome equivalent? Why didn't the South African Musk immigrate to China to build reusable boosters?

Meanwhile:
Chinese Students in America: 300,000 and Counting
You are missing the point, and not understanding the time scale for things to happen and bear fruit. That's like asking where is the olive oil after you've planted olive trees 5 years ago!

A lot of the benefits that the US is enjoying now were seeded way back after WWII. The strong investments in science came from that time and all the way through the space/Moon projects and the Cold War. This is not something you can turn on and expect to get the benefits right away!

The statistics on Chinese students in the US overlooked one very important thing. More than 20 years ago, this number was very small. But now, they are the largest percentage of foreign students in the US by a huge margin. And the overwhelming majority of them are going back to China and building their own programs there! Have you looked at the statistics on the number of physics papers Chinese authors have published over the past 10 years? Have you looked at the trend?

There are going to be several major international physics experiments that will be hosted in China. Daya Bay opened a few years ago. There is at least one underground facility that is being built. And the ILC could easily end up in China. I can't think of any huge international scientific project that does not have a strong participation and collaboration from the Chinese. 20 or 30 years ago, this isn't true.

In the meantime, back in the US, we scaled back FRIB and watered down LBNE because our priorities have been to blindly cut spending across the board.

Zz.
 
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  • #12
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Increasingly Chinese students studying abroad return home, but the majority obtaining U.S. advanced degrees in STEM remain.

... A 2014 report by Oak Ridge Institute shows 85 percent of the 4,121 Chinese students who received doctorates in science and engineering from American universities in 2006 were still in the U.S. five years later. Still, that marked an improvement: The stay rate had been 98 percent a decade earlier
 
  • #13
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Increasingly Chinese students studying abroad return home, but the majority obtaining U.S. advanced degrees in STEM remain.
And as I've stated, look at the TREND!

I personally know of 2 Chinese colleagues who, many years ago, would be content and happy to hang on to their academic positions at well-known universities here in the US. But 5-8 years ago, they both left to go back to China and started their own research programs, and with substantial and sustained funding. They built experimental facilities there from scratch, and now, publications out of that group come up regularly.

For many students, studying in the US and being able to gain employment here are still desirable. But the RATE of that happening has been dropping. And looking at the funding projection that I'm seeing now, I don't see the trend reversing. Couple that with the less-than-welcoming environment for immigrants in the US, it does not paint a rosy picture.

Zz.
 
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Increasingly Chinese students studying abroad return home, but the majority obtaining U.S. advanced degrees in STEM remain.
In other words, the fraction going away increased by a factor 6-10. How many of those with a degree 2016 will still be in the US in 2024?
With an increased fraction going back there is also an increased fraction of Chinese getting their education in China. It is not just a matter of going back. An increasing fraction doesn't even come to the US in the first place.

Catching up always needs time, but China is certainly on the way.

As you mentioned the moon landing: Where is the US rocket that can deliver humans to space?
 
  • #15
gleem
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An article in Issues in Science and Technology "Is US Science in Decline?" this 2014 article explores this topic.

It notes that historically science centers have changed periodically over the centuries from Italy to England to France to Germany to the US. because of the trend for such movement it was predicted that the US would be replace in 2000. Fortunately it did not occur. However changes are occurring and China appears to be making substantial headway toward replacing the US. From the article:

China is the world’s largest country, with a population of 1.3 billion, and grew economically at an annualized growth rate of 7.7% between 1978 and 2010. Other indicators also suggest that China has been developing its science and technology with the intention of narrowing the gap between itself and the United States. Activities in China indicate its inevitable rise as a powerhouse in science and technology, and it is important to understand what this means for U.S. science.



The Chinese government has spent large sums of money trying to upgrade Chinese science education and improve China’s scientific capability. It more than doubled the number of higher education institutions from 1,022 in 1998 to 2,263 in 2008 and upgraded about 100 elite universities with generous government funding. China’s R&D expenditure has been growing at 20% per year, benefitting both from the increase in gross domestic product (GDP) and the increase in the share of GDP spent on R&D. In addition, the government has devised various attractive programs, such as the Changjiang Scholars Program and the Thousand Talent Program, to lure expatriate Chinese-born scientists, particularly those working in the United States, back to work in China on a permanent or temporary basis.
This has been paying off in the quantity and quality of publications coming out of China:

The impact of China’s heavy investment in scientific research is also unmistakable. Data from Thomson Reuters’ InCites and Essential Science Indicators databases indicate that China’s production of scientific articles grew at an annual rate of 15.4% between 1990 and 2011. In terms of total output, China overtook the United Kingdom in 2004, and Japan and Germany in 2005, and has since remained second only to the United States. The data also reveal that the quality of papers produced by Chinese scientists, measured by citations, has increased rapidly. China’s production of highly cited articles achieved parity with Germany and the United Kingdom around 2009 and reached a level of 31% the U.S. rate in 2011.

Like the free trade markets and globalized economies the US must share the opportunities in science with the rest of the world. And like the economy it does not have to be second rate.
 
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No, I think this is an equally ignorant view of the benefits that you have already acquired out of HEP experiments.

First of all, here in the US, the funding for NIH already dwarfs the funding for physics. So we are already funding significantly more on "biology".

Secondly, look at ALL the diagnostics that are used in medical research and medicine. You will notice that EVERY single one of them originated out of physics. Did you think biology originated PET scans? Do x-ray devices came out of nowhere and landed in biology? Are the synchrotron research centers all around the world that did so many research work on proteins and biologial tissues came out of biology? Did the LCLS at SLAC that is being used to study drug compounds and living bacteria and viruses came out of the understanding of biology?

And I haven't even gone into proton therapy and all the other direct medical applications of particle beams yet.

Zz.
I'm a physics PhD student. I know well that most of the technology which has made the study of biology possible wouldn't exist without physics. That's obvious and doesn't need to be stated. That's like stating that physics couldn't be done without mathematics.

However, much of physics research has diminishing returns. Spending billions on high-energy physics experiments has done how much good in the world? High energy physics is critical for building particle accelerators and all kinds of imaging techniques that are invaluable in other fields, but what has fundamental research in physics produced in the last several decades that is of real technological value, or helps us solve real problems in the world?

Is studying dark-energy, dark-matter, string-theory, black hole entropy, gravity waves, neutrino oscillations doing anyone any good?

I would prefer to see money spent on research that is going to solve real problems that need timely solutions.
 
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I'm a physics PhD student. I know well that most of the technology which has made the study of biology possible wouldn't exist without physics. That's obvious and doesn't need to be stated. That's like stating that physics couldn't be done without mathematics.

However, much of physics research has diminishing returns. Spending billions on high-energy physics experiments has done how much good in the world? High energy physics is critical for building particle accelerators and all kinds of imaging techniques that are invaluable in other fields, but what has fundamental research in physics produced in the last several decades that is of real technological value, or helps us solve real problems in the world?

Is studying dark-energy, dark-matter, string-theory, black hole entropy, gravity waves, neutrino oscillations doing anyone any good?

I would prefer to see money spent on research that is going to solve real problems that need timely solutions.
Dial this back about 100 years, and you'd be asking the SAME question about research in quantum mechanics, etc. Did you think they saw anything there that "... solve real problems in the world"? It is extremely short-sighted to abandon basic research for pure knowledge of our universe because we can't see a practical application. History has shown us why it is important.

http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2010/07/26/128784964/in-defense-of-basic-science

But besides that, did you think that the HEP study on elementary particles had no real-world applications? Did our understanding of, say, muons not produced μSR? Or that it would be used for muon tomography? Or what about using antineutrinos for monitoring reactors? Did that come out of nowhere?

It takes YEARS, even decades, for knowledge to find applications. 100 years from now, your comments that have been immortalized here on PF will be read by those people and, like us today looking 100 years back, will shake their heads and see why someone can be so short-sighted.

Zz.
 
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  • #18
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I'm a physics PhD student. I know well that most of the technology which has made the study of biology possible wouldn't exist without physics. That's obvious and doesn't need to be stated. That's like stating that physics couldn't be done without mathematics.

However, much of physics research has diminishing returns. Spending billions on high-energy physics experiments has done how much good in the world? High energy physics is critical for building particle accelerators and all kinds of imaging techniques that are invaluable in other fields, but what has fundamental research in physics produced in the last several decades that is of real technological value, or helps us solve real problems in the world?

Is studying dark-energy, dark-matter, string-theory, black hole entropy, gravity waves, neutrino oscillations doing anyone any good?

I would prefer to see money spent on research that is going to solve real problems that need timely solutions.
Someone correct me if I am wrong, but physicists were some of the pioneers in developing high-performance scientific computing resources so that they could analyze data from the high-energy physics experiments. These computing methods (and the "data scientists" they spawned) are now in the midst of revolutionizing the technology industry (the "big data" revolution).
 
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  • #19
Aufbauwerk 2045
I'm not sure if China has anything like this yet.

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-s...-api-faster-q-systems-computing-a7613271.html

I remember a scene from the spy thriller movie Torn Curtain. The East German physicist is speaking with his young American counterpart. The East German points to his head and says something like "here is where the real work is done. The rest is for mechanics."

Even though I have temporarily put my AI activities on hold, I still believe AI is the key technology. It is our brain amplifier. The thought of what we may be able to achieve in AI, once we have these quantum computers, is tremendously exciting.

Apparently IBM is saying this is the time for companies to start developing software for quantum computers.
 
  • #20
Aufbauwerk 2045
You have a very ignorant view of biology.

Biology is the most important science. Physics is not going to offer you much solace when you or a loved one is dying from cancer or some other curable disease. You may wish the world had spent more on biology research, and less on the LHC, if you one day find yourself wasting away in a hospital bed, wishing you were born a few decades later when a cure will inevitably be available.
I agree with you about the importance of biology. Specifically, I believe understanding how our body works, and being able to fix it, is the most important topic of all. But I wonder if LHC funding takes any significant funding away from biology. That's a question, not a statement. Maybe someone knows the figures.

In any event, I don't think it's an either/or situation when it comes to science funding. We need physics, chemistry, and biology. Without physics research, we would not even have the X-ray, much less the more advanced scanners we have today.

We really need to focus on how to reduce military spending world wide. If we humans ever advance beyond our war-making phase, and dedicate all that money and human effort to science, we might be able to figure out how to extend our lifetime indefinitely, instead of figuring out how to reduce it.
 
  • #21
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Is the US abandoning its position as a science superpower?
What is a science superpower?
How is the US unique?
Why can't other people do science
 
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  • #22
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Science is getting more global. The number of authors per paper increases, and the number of different countries (of its authors) per paper increases as well. Big projects like modern particle physics colliders and their experiments cannot be built by a single country, you need the expertise from people all around the world.

The US is still doing high-energy physics, for example. But they are doing this with colliders elsewhere in the world, like the LHC. The result? Most important meetings are in Europe. Most of the hardware is built in Europe. And most people in the field prefer jobs in Europe - why should you go to the US, where you are far away from the important meetings and where future funding is quite unclear?
Fusion research has a similar situation with ITER (under construction) and Wendelstein 7-X in Europe and declining funding in the US.
I guess climate science will follow.

This can be reverted, but the timescale is longer than the timescale of damaging the field. To attract experts you need experts, and you need the research sites. Not directly US related, but I have seen this pattern with developing countries: They rarely have particle physics departments. Even if they are interested in establishing them: How? No one wants to go there because no one is there. Everyone interested in particle physics goes to other countries to learn from and work with the experts there. It is not impossible to establish a new group, but it is very challenging.
Well at least it still had LIGO - though I guess future developments will be in Europe and India?
 
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I thought the LIGO observation, was er cool. I even left my PC on overnigiht, you know, 'massively distributed data analysis,
Don't know if I get a prize though
 
  • #24
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We really need to focus on how to reduce military spending world wide. If we humans ever advance beyond our war-making phase, and dedicate all that money and human effort to science, we might be able to figure out how to extend our lifetime indefinitely, instead of figuring out how to reduce it.
Unfortunately reality is that war does advance science quite a lot. Some horrific torture has led to important discovery of human anatomy. Nazi Germany has done quite some atrocities, but they did advance science. Nuclear power plant probably exist because of the Manhattan project. Military network is the reason why we have internet today. There are a lot more.

I know what you are trying to say. If we put all that money into peaceful research, some of what I mentioned above probably have been discovered or invented one way or another. However, some parts of human anatomy? Without Nazi atrocities and inhuman experiments, we could still not know as much as we do today that would have been important for medicine. Also, how about multi-disciplinary research? Military is basically all about multi-disciplinary research. Whole lot of (most advanced) technology and science of different discipline is put into those stuff that would otherwise never even been touched upon, or at least took much much longer to realize.

I'm not pro war, but putting all that money to science won't advance as much as when they are spent on military and its research.
 
  • #25
A few stray observations:

1. I agree that, superficially, biology is the most important science. I also agree that the comparatively crude methods of biologists will allow them to make fundamental progress on problems like cancer. However, while the Wright brothers didn't need supercomputers, Lockheed-Martin absolutely depends upon them, and we wouldn't have modern air planes without physics simulations. Without new devices, techniques, and theory, biology will inevitably hit barriers.

2. I do want to point out that HEP has a problem that goes beyond the US abandoning the subject, which is that the LHC has not really found anything truly new. I agree that HEP is one of the most important sciences, but it should not be forgotten that it is also in need of experimental innovation. I think optics, solid state, and plasma physics are arguably equally important for many reasons, but also because each has plausible avenues to experimentally contribute to HEP.

3. Regarding China, I'm at a mid-tier American university in electrical engineering. Some of the labs are staffed entirely by Iranians, Indians, or Chinese. The American students here are mostly lazy and mediocre, in part because they are disillusioned with the nightmarish state of American science and want to take industry jobs, in part because they have suffered from years of lackluster education, and in part due to bloated, degraded modern American culture. Many of the foreign students know that an American PhD, even from a place that ain't Berkeley, will give them excellent odds of scoring a position in government or academic science at home, especially in China. They are typically far more focused and mature.

EDIT: I also want to point out that as an undergrad, I was a lazy, mediocre screwball. Getting into top physics programs was out of the question. Engineering was slightly more accessible. Getting into biology oriented programs was... easy as cake. I got into several of the most prestigious, attended one, and then dropped out in disgust. Make of that what you will.
 
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