Category Archives: Politics

I don’t know what we want to be any more

My job is to explore space. The work I do, day to day, involves figuring out how to get space probes to exotic parts of our Solar System, so that scientists can investigate the inner workings of the planets and flesh out their understanding of humans’ place in it.

One of the strangest things to me about my job is that I agree with almost none of the reasons popular in space media for why this is an important and worthwhile endeavor. National prestige? No, I would be happy to work with scientists who aren’t funded by the US government. Finding resources in space for us to exploit on Earth? Nope, not only is that not what science is doing but I think it would be ultimately unproductive. Inspiring the next generation to pursue STEM careers and fill a supposed “STEM gap?” Heck no — I was inspired to study STEM in order to explore space, not to help a tech company sell surveillance or to fill up jobs in the military-industrial complex.

I explore space, I want to explore space, because I want to be part of something greater than myself. I want my work to help build a monument of scientific achievement that will stand for generations. I want to reach, to dream, to aspire, to learn, and to create. I want to explore space for the same reasons an artist or a poet wants to do what they do.

I think people in my field are afraid to say that. The reason is, I suspect, because we fear the obvious rejoinder: why are you wasting time and resources on that when we have so many problems to solve here on Earth?

My answer has been that it’s not a binary choice: We can feed the hungry, and have poets. We can heal the sick, and have art. We can make a better life for people on Earth, and explore space. But more than that, I think it is part of the measure of a society what we aspire to do and create for tomorrow, not just how we react to the events of yesterday. That’s why I explore space, and why I think it’s important that we — our nation, our society — continue to explore space.

But looking back over the last few years, I have a problem.

I have been completely caught off guard, emotionally and intellectually, by the approach my society is actually taking.

We faced a national disaster in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we collectively decided, nah, we’re just not going to bother to do anything about this. A million people died as a result, most of them easily preventable deaths.

The looming crisis of catastrophic climate change is turning into a global disaster before our eyes, with wildfires, heat waves, hurricanes, floods, and other events rapidly racking up body counts and property damage, threatening our way of life in the near future with everything from decreased production to reduced military effectiveness to food shortages to logistical challenges that will dwarf anything we saw in 2020, and we collectively decided, well, I guess you’ve just got to get what you can while you can. So much for the next generation.

Inequity is a scourge on our national economic effectiveness, not to mention inhumane to those experiencing it, and we have collectively decided, if the worst-off among us have no bread to eat, then it’s on them to find cake. Just so long as the rest of us can’t see them.

Madmen enter our schools with devices designed to make human bodies explode, kill innocent children and young adults, and our society has decided, oh, well, too bad, and we hold a moment of silence while we wait for the next one to happen. Meanwhile, we traumatize kids with intrusive security measures and drills that will remain ineffective so long as we keep fetishizing access to violence. The recurring Onion headline is so biting because it is an exact measure of the depth of our failure.

We are, to put it simply, no longer a nation that tries to solve its problems at all. What solution-oriented programs we have continue only on inertia, not because we are trying to improve the parts of our society that need attention. What aspirational efforts we have also seem to continue on inertia, not because of a national drive to be better. So here I am, attached to a vestigial aspirational effort and arguing that we could do both while our society around me is deciding to do neither.

We got here because one of America’s major political parties has spent decades pushing a message that boils down to the insistence that government should not solve problems, or heck, government should not do anything except for a few legacy activities that benefit the relatively privileged. As a result, we have built a system where we don’t help the sick, we don’t help the poor, we don’t plan for the future, we don’t create opportunities, we don’t innovate, we don’t address the root causes of crime or oppression, we don’t educate our kids, we don’t even keep our kids safe from harm. And these things seem to have become our national values, so that enough voters feel a patriotic and political obligation to continue not solving the problems that face all of us. Now, only those of us who started with money have a chance.

I fear for the future because we live in a nation where that same party can win most state and federal representation with less than half the vote, is actively working to secure power regardless of future vote outcomes, and is willing to deploy violence and intimidation if it doesn’t get its way. For a brief window, though, we have a chance to ask ourselves: Is this really the kind of society we want to be? We really want to be the society who rearranges deck chairs on the Titanic, because oh, well, this is what being ‘Merican is, and we don’t want to see the iceberg so we just won’t?

It didn’t used to be.

I wish we could aspire again.

I wish we could solve basic national problems again.

The fact that we have collectively decided not to is so frustrating to me because it cuts right to my self-image.

The only thing I know of to do in response is vote for Democrats, and press them to safeguard our democracy.

Apollo and Dionysus

Neil Armstrong, in the LM after his historic lunar EVA with Buzz Aldrin

As I write this, it is 50 years to the moment after the Lunar Module Eagle ascended from the surface of the Moon, carrying a victorious Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin up to their rendezvous with crewmate Mike Collins in the Command Module Columbia. Although I am too young to have personal memories of this event, I’ve been following the mission on its 50th anniversary through the web site Apollo in Real Time. It’s been exciting, and I, like many others involved in the space industry, have been driven introspective.

Why did we send Apollo 11 to the Moon, and why should we keep sending people to explore space?

The first question is all about geopolitics. The United States sent Apollo 11 to land on the Moon because the country wanted a very public way to demonstrate the superiority of its technical capabilities over the Soviet Union. The deep political worry at the time was that the USSR would not only beat the US to the Moon, but that they would emplace weapons there that the US could not counter-target — messing up the strike and counter-strike strategies underlying the insanity of mutually assured destruction. So, the US also decided to conduct its lunar landing in a way that would establish a specific set of norms for space exploration activities: We do this on behalf of all the people of Earth. We are here for science and knowledge. We show the world everything we do, as we do it. We come in peace, for all mankind. Apollo 11 literally left a model of an olive branch on the Moon.

But now the race is long over, and the norms established are taken for granted (if we remember them). Why continue? I find this a difficult question for me to answer — partly because I don’t believe several of the common arguments to be very compelling. Those arguments are science, spinoff technology, and inspiration.

Science is the easiest to dispense: our robotic probes reach across the Solar System, relaying extensive data back to scientists on Earth. The time, effort, and expense of sending a human mission to, say, Mars, absolutely dwarfs the cost of a robotic science mission. As an example, a recent report estimated the cost of a 2037 Mars mission as $120 billion (not including some other significant developments like a precursor lunar landing); the NASA Science Mission Directorate puts a cost cap of about $600 million on Discovery-class missions like the InSight lander, meaning we could send 200 robotic missions for the cost of one human mission. We would have to make sure that the science output of a human mission is at least 200 times better than the science of a robotic mission, and I’m not sure that’s a case one can make. Likewise, while space exploration, and human spaceflight in particular, has produced a great deal of technology that we now use on Earth in engineering, science, medicine, and daily life — those “spin-off technologies” are, almost by definition, ancillary benefits of a development program that had a different objective. This isn’t a bad thing (and NASA investment is far better at spinning off technology than, say, military investment)…but if we as a society have the goal of getting those technologies, we would just fund their development in the first place, rather than hoping that useful spin-offs come out of another program.

It seems to me like inspirational power is the most common reason cited to continue human spaceflight activities. Here, for example, is the current NASA administrator on Twitter:

Whenever someone tells me that the United States needs to inspire more students to study scientific and engineering fields, I want to ask them: What comes after this great inspiration? When a student says that NASA activities make them want to study math and science — are we, as a nation, going to invest in a technical education system to support their ambitions? Because, right now, we do not; those students are left hanging with the means already at their family’s disposal. And then suppose that these inspired students do get a degree in science or engineering: what do they do with it? Supposedly there has been a “STEM shortage” for years, but I do not see it materializing in a shower of job offers for recent graduates. Where are the university science departments desperate to fill vacant professorships? Where is the bipartisan call to expand the civil services of NASA, NOAA, NSF, CDC, and other national scientific agencies? Where are the private research and development organizations with a backlog of open lab positions to fill? Where are the engineering firm recruiters waiting eagerly outside the doors of college engineering buildings? Our lack of national investment in technology, research, and development belies our stated goals. And, in the vacuum, our previously inspired students are off to Google and Facebook to tweak the algorithms for selling users’ private data to advertisers.

My engineer’s brain struggles with the fact that I can come up with other rationales for human spaceflight, but they seem somehow squishier than the arguments above — the ones I don’t find very resonant after a little thought. After all, the arguments I described so far seem quantifiable: number of undergraduate degrees awarded in STEM fields. Number of scientific papers written by human spaceflight researchers. Number of commercialized technologies. Maybe the solution is to look at the problem with something other than an engineer’s brain.

I think the purpose of human spaceflight should be to expand human life out into the Solar System.

I also think that the reason we don’t often hear this statement articulated is that spaceflight proponents (especially NASA staff) don’t believe this argument will resonate with the public, but I believe they are wrong about that.

People get invested with spaceflight when the engineers, scientists, and astronauts involved connect spaceflight with human experience. Look at Neil Armstrong’s contemplative words as he took his first steps on the Moon. Look at Chris Hadfield singing “Space Oddity” aboard his own tin can. Look at the engineers at JPL whooping as a robot touches down on Mars. And look at the way these things catch the public eye, in a way that a purely technical accomplishment does not. Human experience has a value all its own — despite seeing the pictures and reading about the scientific results, I still want to ask the surviving Apollo astronauts, what was it like?! No, really, what was it like, on the Moon? I think it is worth having people living and working in space, for the sake of connecting the awesome experience of our cosmos to our humanity, and for creating an enduring example of what humans can achieve when we pull together and decide to build something.

Ultimately, I want to see permanent human habitation in space and on other planets. Beyond the romantic notions, there are some simple economic drivers that ought to push us in that direction. Any economic model that assumes growth, on a finite planet, is going to run into trouble eventually — and considering some of the anticipated resource shortages connected to the climate crisis, that point may come sooner than we think. (For another thing, with the world’s most powerful militaries blindly chasing “capabilities” in a way that brings us ever closer to nuclear war, I’d feel a lot more comfortable for the future of humanity if some of us were outside their reach.) No place that we’ve yet discovered will be as amenable to human life as the Earth, even in the face of climate crisis or asteroid impact, but that fact does not mean that we won’t eventually need to have humans off the Earth’s surface.

Now, if that’s really the winning justification for human spaceflight — having humans living in space and developing a culture that connects back to people on Earth — then that implies some changes to NASA’s objectives. Instead of having astronauts “learn to live and work in space,” NASA ought to get people actually living and working in space. This brings to light another reason why we may not see human habitation put forward as the reason for human spaceflight: I am asking for a major, concerted effort on NASA’s part; one that emphasizes long-term approaches to human spaceflight and spacecraft at the expense of the Apollo short-term race approach. We should be looking at regular launches to low Earth orbit, major development effort on in-situ resource utilization, designing and building large habitats that are amenable to long-term human life and work, and allowing a great deal of autonomy to the people in space. But, just as it’s nearly impossible for the US government to close unneeded military bases, it’s proven impossible to reorient NASA from the same kinds of work that has been done at each NASA field center for decades, going all the way back to the 1960s.

Which brings us, of course, to the reason why no humans have set foot on the Moon since the Apollo program: politicians like to have NASA, but they don’t like the implications of having NASA do things. Having NASA do things requires allocation (and re-allocation) of resources. They’ve tried to have it both ways, for decades, by splitting the difference. And we’re left trying to justify the space program as it is, with unconvincing arguments, instead of having a rationale behind the total human spaceflight endeavor and building a space program to satisfy that rationale.

Having a resonant driving force behind human spaceflight could help NASA maintain consistent direction in the decades to come. Do I have the winning argument? I really don’t know. But one thing’s for sure: the arguments we’ve been using so far aren’t working very well, if holding human spaceflight to steady progress is the goal.

Scientists Should March

Scientists are planning a “March for Science” in Washington, DC and many other cities on 22 April 2017. Some commentators seem to think this is a bad idea, because it would politicize science.

Before I continue, let me suggest the form an intellectually honest debate about global warming would take:

Scientists:

Global warming is happening.

It will cost $X to stop and/or mitigate global warming. If we do not stop and/or mitigate it, it will cost $Y to deal with the resulting property damage, logistical problems, loss of standard of living, food supply shortages, disease outbreaks, and security threats. $Y is much bigger than $X.

Democrats:

Okay. We think that from an economic, social, and security standpoint, we would be better off paying the smaller amount up front, $X, than having to deal with all those problems individually later on.

Republicans:

Okay. We think that the impact to certain market sectors would be too great to pay the $X up front. We think we are better able to pay installments of the larger cost $Y later on, as those various problems crop up.

Now, allow me to summarize the form the actual debate about global warming seems to be taking in the United States:

Scientists:

Global warming is happening.

It will cost $X to stop and/or mitigate global warming. If we do not stop and/or mitigate it, it will cost $Y to deal with the resulting property damage, logistical problems, loss of standard of living, food supply shortages, disease outbreaks, and security threats. $Y is much bigger than $X.

Democrats:

Okay. We think that from an economic, social, and security standpoint, we would be better off paying the smaller amount up front, $X, than having to deal with all those problems individually later on.

Republicans:

Global warming is not happening.

Scientists:

But we just told you that it is, and presented our evidence, and told you the cost of ignoring–

Republicans:

Stop doing science.

It’s easy to say that scientists should keep themselves in the business of producing scientific evidence and scientific conclusions, and stay out of the business of figuring out how to act on those conclusions. Science, after all, doesn’t tell us anything about morality or ideals, it just describes what happens in the world.

What does someone do, though, if they hold a particular position, and science produces definitive evidence suggesting that their position does not give them the result they want? In my field of engineering, the correct response to this scenario is to redesign my system so that I do get the result I want. I have to trust that the most up-to-date scientific theory is the most accurate description available of how my design will actually work, regardless of what I want my design to do. However, more and more, we are seeing a different strategy emerge in the field of politics: attack the science itself. Cast aspersions on the scientists. Talk about presenting “alternative facts,” as though physics behaves differently depending on one’s ideals. Cut off the ability of scientists to conduct their work, if one thinks that they will uncover evidence disfavoring one’s suggested course of action.

This is not a good way to solve problems.

What I believe scientists are standing up for in their march is simply the idea that decisions should be based on evidence. Conclusions should be based on a strong argument. Engineers know this. Businesspeople know this. Doctors know this. Scientists know this. Politicians should, too.

Scientists may not be perfect people, and an individual scientist’s conclusions may not be completely correct. Lots of factors feed into this: the tenure process, aggressive university publishing policies, limited funding, and severe competition leading to hype. But that is why we conduct science as a community, and as part of a larger iterative process. Scientists as a whole are always improving the state of knowledge. Others follow to correct and refine previous knowledge. As such, the current state of the art does represent the best available scientific description of the world. And, in many cases, that description has been converging. So, I can say with confidence: Global warming is happening, and human-caused, and has real economic costs. Vaccines don’t cause autism. GMOs are fine to grow and eat. The collapse of the bee population is going to cause big problems for agriculture. Coal power is just more expensive than natural gas (and, soon, wind and solar). Tax cuts for the wealthy are not as effective at stimulating the economy as government investment. No refugee from the Middle East has committed a terrorist attack in the United States. American police shoot black people at a disproportionately high rate. These are all things we can measure, facts based on evidence. There are no alternatives.

What do we do about these things? Do we do anything about them? Yes, those are questions for politicians to debate. But I can tell you this definitively: cutting off support for the science that produced evidence of a problem does not make things better. Politicians who advocate doing so are not going to help solve those problems, and we all need to remember who they are and how they are exacerbating our problems.

That is why scientists should call attention to their work and to their efforts. They need to remind everyone that evidence matters and decisions based on evidence matter. They need to remind people that experts have expertise. This march is not just about science, it is about the very idea that we can observe the world and use our observations to inform our expectations about the future. It’s about stating the reality of reality as opposed to “alternative facts.”

The idea that scientific evidence is a description of reality is not a political statement. I can understand how that might be hard to grasp, though, for a party whose paragon once took an incorrect position and said, “my heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

Guess what? The facts and evidence were right.

We Can’t Grow Forever – so What?

Two interrelated opinion pieces appear in today’s New York Times. The first is an essay by David Brooks about how the economic growth of the 21st century compares unfavorably to that of the heady 20th century. The second is the Editorial Board’s argument that data does not support the idea that automation is responsible for recent economic malaise.

Brooks’ piece resonated with me because I hold the opinion that, regardless of your position on regulations, taxes, the environment, or public policy, a nation simply cannot grow forever. Whether we are talking about population size, economic output, available resources, or territorial holdings, there is simply a fundamental limit to what is available on the Earth. I think we are starting to see these limits reflected in our growth path, as Brooks writes. Extractive industries provide a good case study: I don’t think we’d have deep-water drilling if shallow-water drilling remained lucrative, and I don’t think we’d have the economic case for fracking if the easy-to-reach resources were still as worthwhile to get. Similar principles are going to apply to any resource or population.

The notion of the Earth being finite seems to bother economists. If our population does not continuously grow, then our output doesn’t grow. The United States’ trajectory through the 20th century was predicated on the idea of continual growth, which spells trouble if we try to carry that path forward. This is where the editorial comes in: In order to succeed and provide for our citizens in the 21st century, we need new policies.

The United States’ economic policies over the last several decades have been basically Republican policies. (I want to explicitly draw a distinction between “Republican” policies – across-the-board tax cuts, cutting regulation, and increasing defense spending – and “conservative” policies – market-based solutions, revenue-neutral ideas, and the like – because they are very much not the same.) Somehow, the Republican party has managed to sell themselves to many Americans as the small-business-friendly, growth-promoting, income-increasing party that they are not, instead of the giant-multinational-conglomerate-favoring, uber-wealthy-CEO-catering party that they are. In a world where more and more people are gunning for fewer resources than they could have a half-century ago, those policies may be the exact opposite of what we need. So are we going to get the policy reforms we need under Republican leadership? Certainly not. My generation is going to inherit a world of rapidly rising income inequality (not to mention sea levels).  Because, I think people wanted to buy one thing when they elected Republicans last November, but they got a lemon.

The frustrating thing to me is that I believe the Democrats have it right, in terms of policy philosophy. Maintaining a strong economy in the future world is going to be about efficiency. We’re going to have to find new ways of going about our business so that we can make more with less. We’re going to have to find ways to incentivize building robust products that last a long time, instead of selling consumers on the idea of constant upgrades. We’re going to have to find efficient ways for society to reduce its overall costs while balancing individual needs, like all buying health insurance so we don’t pay more at the ER. We’re going to have to power our homes with home-grown renewable energy, not just because it’s good for the planet but because it’s going to be cheaper and more readily available in the long term. We’re going to have to go back to what we learned in elementary school: reduce, reuse, recycle!

And we’re going to have to figure out how to make economic growth out of that, as our population starts to shrink. That clearly requires policy changes. Blind cuts to regulations so that we can dump pollution in rivers won’t solve this problem; tax cuts that go mostly to wealthy corporate boardmembers won’t solve this problem; more nuanced approaches are needed. The solutions are likely carefully crafted, market-based plans involving a full portfolio of cuts, new regulations, and taxes.

Many of those will be conservative solutions.

(Probably, at this rate, ones put forward by the Democratic Party, like the ACA.)

A ray of sunshine here: At the state and local level, politicians are trying to solve problems. This involves recognizing what the problems are, and trying to implement a plan to address them. It also involves trying a new plan when the first one doesn’t work.

So, let’s watch carefully over the next few years: What works? What doesn’t?

And who put forward which ideas?

Donald Trump will fail as President, but we must still resist him

Donald Trump will fail as President.

Let me explain that statement a little, by defining what I mean by “fail.” Trump will fail to accomplish most, if not all, of the goals that he has publicly stated he wishes to accomplish. (He may, of course, accomplish goals that he has not publicly stated, like enriching himself by manipulating the office of President or severely curtailing civil liberties. But we can’t really know what those are, so I will leave them aside for now.) The reason is simple: most of his stated goals are flatly impossible.

Take, for example, his pledge to “unleash” the coal industry. He plans to do this by rolling back Obama Administration regulations. However, those regulations aren’t the reason why the coal industry was in trouble in the first place. Coal was in trouble because it’s too expensive. Natural gas is cheaper. Even wind and solar are getting cheaper than coal! The only way to “unleash” coal would be through a massive campaign of government subsidies. Good luck getting Paul Ryan to sign up for that, Mr. Trump!

Or, for another example, look at Trump’s vow to put the US military “on display” by increasing the military budget to buy more ships, tanks, and planes. But the military development and procurement processes these days are decades long – so even if Trump doubled the military budget, it could be ten or twenty years before there’s any visible increase in American military capability!

Trump also says he wants to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. He wants to do this by renegotiating free trade agreements. This won’t work at all, though – the reason why lots of manufacturing jobs dried up in the US is more because of automation than trade and jobs moving overseas. A terrific example is the Carrier plant where Trump claimed to save jobs from moving to Mexico. Part of the large taxpayer-funded incentive package Trump gave to Carrier was assistance investing in their Indiana plant. Guess what Carrier is investing in? Automation! If that automation cuts the need for more jobs than Trump saved, he produced a net loss for American workers.

I could go on, of course. There’s the infamous travel ban that doesn’t target terrorists, but instead targets terrorists’ victims. There’s his pledge to provide healthcare for everyone, which there’s really only two ways to accomplish: give it to everyone (a single-payer system), or require everyone to get it and give them assistance if needed (Obamacare). His promises regarding GDP growth or budget-balancing don’t square with any projections, assuming he cuts taxes the way he promised. His rhetoric and stated goals are populist, but his policy proposals and cabinet appointments are corporatist. A wall along the Mexican border will have to traverse rugged mountains and sovereign Native territory, and there is no way for the US to get Mexico to pay for it.

He’s simply not going to do any of the things he wants, because he cannot. But I think patriotic Americans need to fight against him whenever we can anyway.

The first reason to resist Trump is because, though he may be a snake oil salesman, he’s a good salesman. He knows how to use your own brain against you. His administration appears to be on a concerted campaign to gaslight us – to get us to question the veracity of any information presented to us by anyone other than the administration itself. They invent fake terror plots, fake definitions of words, fake counts of people, fake reasons why the President can’t disclose his business dealings, and fake historical events. This process isn’t benign, and it is insidious. Removing references to Jews from the Holocaust, for example, has long been an anti-Semitic tactic.

So, we must constantly be on our guard. We cannot assume that the administration has our best interest in mind. We cannot even assume that what they say is accurate. We have to carefully screen their statements against facts available from reliable sources, and we have to defuse their gaslighting with knowledge of how they are trying to manipulate us. (Seriously, read that article!) We have to resist. If we don’t, who knows what they will try to sell us on?

The second reason to resist Trump gets back to my definition of failure as failing to accomplish his stated goals. I am quite sure that Trump has unstated goals. If he didn’t want to hide anything, why would he keep insisting against disclosing his tax returns, for example? Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure what those unstated goals are. But we can probably get some idea by looking at the stated goals of his closest advisers. Steve Bannon, for example, apparently said that he wants to bring the entire American system “crashing down,” and he has been explicit about his desire to curtail civil liberties, especially for non-whites and non-Christians.

Even if Trump fails to do the things he campaigned on doing, he can do a lot of fundamental damage to civil society in the meantime. The confusion over enforcement of the Muslim travel ban illustrated perfectly how, even if the Administration’s orders are unconstitutional, unethical, and flagrantly immoral, they could ram them through for some time before the courts could catch up. (The legislative branch of government has yet to do so!) Voting restrictions on minorities or the poor, more travel restrictions, profiling by law enforcement, permit and grant awards, and other avenues allow the executive branch of government a great deal of power. Therefore, we must fight back: we must challenge his orders in the courts as rapidly as Trump signs them, we must pressure our representatives to stall Trump’s legislative agenda and restrict executive power where it’s abused, and we must remember to keep our voices heard in all spheres of government. Remember, Trump lost the popular vote, and his electoral college victory hinged on the votes of 0.025% of the population – in an election when less than half of voters actually cast ballots. He has no mandate. His Republican allies’ mandates rest on gerrymandering. With such a weak base of support, there is an opening for us. We must seize it.

For the sake of all those too weak to fight back, all those who would be victimized by Bannon’s place on the National Security Council and Trump’s executive orders, we have a moral, ethical, and patriotic obligation to fight back. Because although Trump will fail, his failure cannot come soon enough for our communities.

From the Chicago Tribune
From the Chicago Tribune

A brief note about the 2016 presidential election

Hey, Americans. I want you to know that I’m looking for a few things from my national leadership, especially the President.

  1. Infrastructure investment. Doing this is how we will solve a huge number of problems: Want to create jobs? Advance American science and technology? Mitigate global warming? Fix broken bridges? Make the electric grid more robust to cyberattack? Then we have to invest in our highways, power systems, public transit, National Science Foundation, NASA, and data systems. This all takes concerted national effort and a lot of money, but the important thing about it being an investment is that the payoff is greater than the cost!
  2. An end to the attitude of constant warfare that has pervaded American foreign policy since World War II. Most, if not all, of the foreign policy challenges America faces today are of our own making. We need to stop doing that! We could also save a ton of money in the defense arena. I’m convinced that the US Department of Defense budget could be half of what it currently is, and the US would suffer no loss to national security. (In fact, ending some of our more specifically provocative programs like drone strikes, prompt global strike weapons, or the recently unveiled B-21 would probably increase our national security, by de-escalating arms races and conflicts.)
  3. A considered, logical, and data-based approach to solving our pressing problems. Issues like income inequality, racism, campaign finance reform, education, the national debt, immigration, foreign policy – or anything else, really – cannot be solved with a simplistically soundbyte-y ideologies like “build a wall,” “create jobs,” or “bomb them.” They are complex, multifaceted problems, and we know from history, science, or economics which solutions are more likely to work and which are not. We should use that knowledge. To give an example, if we want to reduce the incidence of gun deaths, studies show that the most effective way to do so is to reduce the rate of gun ownership. To give another, global warming is definitely a thing, definitely caused by humans, and definitely going to threaten our lives and livelihoods in the future: we should fix it, and we know how. In some way, a reduced role for ideology may help advance the other two points, too.

It would be nice to see more of these perspectives from the campaign trail. None of the Republicans have any interest in any of my points. Most of them actually seem to take opposite positions; to listen to their debates, I guess America needs less investment, more war, and more ideology. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton seems to be interested in items 1 and 3, while Bernie Sanders seems to like them all. If only Congress had more adherents to these ideas!

What is the nature of the STEM crisis?

There is a recent National Science Foundation report out that says, over the decade from 1993 to 2013, the number of college graduates in science and engineering fields grew faster than the number of graduates in any other fields. By 2013, we got up to 27% of college graduates getting their degrees in science or engineering. Hooray! STEM crisis solved, right?

I actually see something in this report that I find quite worrying, and a sad commentary on the state of science and engineering in the United States.

The report says that only 10% of all college graduates got jobs in science or engineering fields. That statistic means that, although 27% of our graduates are in STEM fields, at least 17% of graduates got their degree in science or engineering but couldn’t find a job in any scientific or engineering field. Put another way, at least 63% of STEM graduates couldn’t get a job in STEM fields!

The STEM crisis, in my opinion, isn’t about the number of graduates. It’s about the support our country and society gives to science and engineering. Our government has forsaken basic research in favor of maintenance-level defense tasks and austerity. Our companies have forsaken applied research in favor of “killer apps” and next-quarter profits. In light of those actions, it’s no wonder that we’re now worried that other nations might leapfrog us technologically.

If we want to get out of this hole we dug, we need to dramatically increase our support for science, engineering, and innovation.

Vhonn/Brawn (what could we do?)

Vhonn/Brawn

Wernher von Braun is one of the lions of the early American space program: a pioneer who engineered our initial forays into orbit, our steps onto the surface of the moon, and our designs for space stations and Martian colonies. He developed or directed the development of the technology to enable those feats. Without him, the United States might not have a space program as we know it.

But all technology is only as good as the people who use it. If von Braun had a personal failing, it was being willing to embrace the use of his devices for nefarious purposes, so long as he could work on them at all. His part in aerospace history began in Nazi Germany, with slave labor and vengeance weapons. Then, after he surrendered to the Americans, he secured a place at the US Army not by promising it the moon – but by promising it the intercontinental ballistic missile. The dual use of this technology was not lost on von Braun. As he famously said of the V2, “the rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” Since then, every single government to come into contact with von Braun’s work has first thought not of space exploration, but of ballistic missiles armed with weapons of terror.

Brawn

Two worlds. The reckless denizens of Brawn choose to use their technology for destructive ends. In their insecurity, they ultimately realized their driving fears. Now, all that remains of them is technological detritus: shattered pipelines, broken chain-link fences, and cracked bunkers; all are monuments to warnings ignored.

Vhonn

On another world, the policymakers kept their engineers focused on exploration, enriching and enhancing their culture. They ultimately landed an expedition on the neighboring planet Vhonn – a place harsh in its alienness, but full of scientific treasure troves, including keys to understanding life as they knew it. Their citizens are confident and inspired. They strive forward into the cosmos, and will eventually stake claims throughout their star system.

Today was once celebrated as Armistice Day, a day when the world laid down its arms to end the greatest war it had ever felt – a war that saw the development of weapons so terrible that an international convention gathered to forbid their use. Now, nearly a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, may we do so again. I hope that, one day, we live in a nation worthy of our veterans’ sacrifices.

Visionaries

The Space Review has a fantastic article that invaded my whole way of thinking this morning while I was trying to get into my groove for work. It casts the golden age of space exploration – the Space Race – as a contest of two visionary dreamers against their employing superpowers. It also goes a long way towards explaining the allure of SpaceX! The arguments presented therein may or may not be right, but they certainly form an interesting view to read.

It’s a fantastic and different historical perspective. Plus, some of the author’s writing includes delicious indictments of the use of space technology for evil.

Threat assessment

Sometimes, I wish I had more Republican Congressmen to write to.

Human-caused climate change is a national security issue. It threatens our lives, our property, and our way of life. And it is the only thing that we know, for a scientific fact, will threaten the American people in the future. We ought to start treating it as such, and start investing, on a national scale, in stopping it.

Ignoring the problem is, in my mind, tantamount to embracing Chamberlain’s security strategy in the late 1930s: a course for further destruction and calamity.