The Last Days Of The American Empire…Soft Power Edition

I’m working on an column about, among other things, the arc of federal support for science since World War II.  As I was trying not to think about our national emergency national emergency this morning, I tripped over the following thought…

The funding deal Pelosi, McConnell et al. worked out included $1.375 billion for new barrier construction along the border (not, technically, a or the wall). That’s a win for the Democrats and a defeat for Trump, as it’s a tiny fraction of the amount that the bigot-in-chief sought, and that would be necessary to truly fortify the frontier.  For what follows I’m going to ignore the faux emergency through which the would-be dictator seeks to seize other money to pay for some useless shit, and just look at that number.

So, what makes for a powerful country?  I’d argue that the ability to project force around the world is in many  ways the least significant part of it.  Certainly, in a globally connected world, with the full range of surveillance technology and so forth, the notion of using technology perfected by, say, 1400 or so, overlapping fortifications, to keep folks out is…

Shit stupid.

US power since the middle of the last century has certainly been headlined by the military; but our capacity to influence life at home and abroad on a daily basis, in the hour-by-hour experience of billions, has turned on everything else, from our cultural impact (jeans! Rock and roll!) to, crucially and perhaps most significantly, the scientific, medical and technological revolutions fostered by the American research community.

That’s what got me going about even the seemingly de minimus amount of barrier funding in the spending bill.

The NIH budget for 2019 is $39.3 billion. In constant dollars, that’s nine percent below the peak funding achieved in 2003.  About 80% of that money goes to research grants — so just shy of $32 billion pays for folks to address all the ills that befall Americans, and citizens of the world.  For FY 2018 the National Science Foundation received $6.334 billion for research related activities.* *There are, of course, other significant pots of research money in the federal budget — DoD, DoE and Commerce all fund a lot.  But the NSF is where curiosity-driven basic research gets its support, and the NIH is, of course, the one that as we all age we notice a lot, so that’s where I’m focusing this exercise in futile rage.

A first, obvious point. The money spent on the barrier would add more than twenty percent to recent NSF research budgets, and would represent a four percent boost to the NIH.

Within those numbers these factoids: the average research project grant at NIH in 2017 provided a skosh over $500,000 to award winners. The NSF funds such a wide range of projects and disciplines that the figures are a little opaque, but still, as of 2016, the average grant offered an annualized $177,100, while the median figure was $140,900 per year.

You can see where this is going.  That barrier money could fund almost 2,800 more principal investigators trying to figure out cancer, Alzheimers, antiobiotic resistance and all the rest.  It could pay for more than 12,000 researchers pursuing basic science — the kinds of questions with pay offs that can’t be anticipated, but that have, over the last century, utterly transformed the way humans live on earth.

FTR: I do know that budgets don’t work as sort of implied above. They’re political documents, so spending on foolish stuff is often the price to be paid to spend some on smart ideas.  If we somehow avoid pouring a billion plus into  holes in the ground along the Rio Grande, that money doesn’t readily flow to a lab.  But the exercise is worth doing anyway, if only to point out how little, in budget terms, it would take to turbo charge research in this country.

The reasons for doing so extend beyond the value of knowledge for its own sake, of course, there’s the economic benefits of scientific research. There is an open argument about the size of the multiplier for each dollar invested in basic research, though less controversy about the benefits of investing in more translational or directly motivated work of the sort that shows up in many/most NIH proposals, for example. But the bottom line is that trying to figure out how nature works is good for the national (and global) bottom line.

Instead, we’re buying bollards.

And that’s how the American century ends.

Not with a catastrophic collapse, but the decision to put our national treasure to work in dumbest possible fashion, leaving aspiration, well being and wealth on the table.

With that — I’m done, and you’re up. Open thread.

*There are, of course, other significant pots of research money in the federal budget — DoD, DoE and Commerce all fund a lot.  But the NSF is where curiosity-driven basic research gets its support, and the NIH is, of course, the one that as we all age we notice a lot, so that’s where I’m focusing this exercise in futile rage.

Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Ramparts of Paris1887



Global Warming – The Message Is Getting Through

The New York Times reports on a new poll.

A record number of Americans understand that climate change is real, according to a new survey, and they are increasingly worried about its effects in their lives today.

Two important takeaways:

First, the results themselves. “I’ve never seen jumps in some of the key indicators like this,” one of the investigators said.

Second, the Times saw no need to “balance” the results with a statement from a self-identified scientist living in his mother’s basement. Further, they used the word “understand” four times to describe the respondents’ relationship to the facts of global warming.

Real progress.

And open thread.



Wednesday Morning Open Thread: Happy News

Not necessarily in order of importance…

Writer Jill Twiss and illustrator EG Keller are collaborating on “The Someone New,” HarperCollins Children’s Books announced Wednesday. Scheduled for June 4, the book is a parable about welcoming outsiders. It tells of a forest in which a chipmunk worries that the entrance of a snail will ruin the world he knows. The publisher will donate some proceeds to a charity aiding immigrant children.

Twiss is a staff writer for John Oliver’s HBO program. She and Keller worked on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents a Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo,” which spoofs a picture story by the wife and daughter of Vice President Mike Pence by making Bundo a gay rabbit…

 
Nancy Pelosi knows Elijah Cummings is an excellent mentor for young firebrands…


 


 



Tuesday Morning Open Thread: Running in Even Bigger Circles, Faster


 
There is definitely something wrong with this particular timeline…



A Climate Change Disaster That Might Actually Hit Denialists Where They (And Most Of Us) Live

The tiny handed shitgibbon infesting the White House seems to “think” that folks can’t tell the difference between weather and climate:*

“Large parts of the Country are suffering from tremendous amounts of snow and near record setting cold. Amazing how big this system is. Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!”

Don’t know about you but I can hear the “hurr, hurr, hurr” quite clearly.

Meanwhile, in the reality-based cosmos, new and increasingly horrific dimensions of the climate crisis are making themselves apparent with every passing week:

Applying IUCN Red List of Threatened Species criteria to all (124) wild coffee species, we undertook a gap analysis for germplasm collections and protected areas and devised a crop wild relative (CWR) priority system. We found that at least 60% of all coffee species are threatened with extinction, 45% are not held in any germplasm collection, and 28% are not known to occur in any protected area. Existing conservation measures, including those for key coffee CWRs, are inadequate. We propose that wild coffee species are extinction sensitive, especially in an era of accelerated climatic change.

Domesticated coffee cultivation in a context of changing climate, drought, changes in pest patterns etc. requires the kind of genetic variety and range of traits that the ~125 wild coffee species offer.  Those wild plants are subject to the same pressures that have created what many see as the sixth Great Extinction in the history of life on earth: loss of habitat, over exploitation, and, now, human-driven climate change.  As the abstract above notes, much of the genetic heritage of wild coffee is simply unknown: unpreserved, unstudied, and under dire threat.

Which means that while Trump smears faeces on the wall (on the faces of his supporters?) the one thing that makes facing a morning with his tweets in it seem even remotely possible is being put at risk by his and his party’s willed ignorance, stupidity, and greed.

Happy Sunday, all….

(Open Thread)

*He might not be wrong for much of his base, but more and more, it appears, this particular squib doesn’t have much impact beyond the I’ll-enjoy-the-drought-to-pwn-the-libs crowd.

Image: J.W.M. Turner, Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouthc. 1842.