Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Man in the Moon: Frontier Science. Superman, and the Subalterns Do Not Speak

I submitted this to a magazine ages ago but since they have been silent on whether they would publish it or not, I have decided to just publish this on my own blog. The encomium over Neil Armstrong is long past but the issues are still relevant.

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The twentieth century has been an age of unprecedented breakthroughs in technology and scientific adventure. This breakthrough is exemplified in the persona of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon who recently passed on and was mourned by many far and wide. Encomium aside, it is also important to realize that the golden age enabling a man such as Armstrong to achieve heroic feats was no mere act of serendipity and came through unequivocal economic opportunities that generated the strong growth of the American scientific programs of the mid-twentieth century.

For a long time, the modern sciences as we know now, are built, practiced, and dominated by men of European descent. The most dominant forms of scientific methodologies and practices, such practices and methodologies having seemingly demonstrated great success, are aided in its spread by public institutions of higher learning and public-funded research institutions, as well as through the school curriculum.  European and North American institutions had been well placed, in terms of infrastructure and amenities, to fund the advancement of sciences since the nineteenth century, driven by the prosperity acquired through industrialization, commerce and in some instances, colonial plunders. European countries that are active participants of the 'Age of Enlightenment' were also the ones making the most progress in different areas of sciences, even if their approaches are also differentiated slightly and fueled by certain cultural and nationalistic affiliations and predispositions (this is a very interesting area of discussion that I will not enter into here). I begin my discussion of the history of modern science from that time frame, as it was then that modern science as we know today began to take much of its shape.

However, much of the practices of science up until the beginning of the nineteenth century are mainly private endeavors done within the space of one's personal lab, since much of scientific training in universities focus more on theories rather than practice, as the natural sciences were taught as natural philosophy. It was probably only beginning from the mid-nineteenth century, and more so towards the end of the nineteenth century that Europe, namely Germany, England and France, began to take professional scientific training very seriously (even though Germany was probably the first to normalize scientific training through a sort of graduate training programs in the early-to mid nineteenth century that were exported to England and France, and later to the United States). Around the final quarter of the nineteenth century, the United States also began to formalize professional training labs, which took place mainly in the northeastern part of the country in the beginning before spreading west, south, and into the interior. But what was interesting in the American case was that, it was the importance of the role played by professional scientists in contributing to public service, as an effort to improve the living standards of its populace in areas of health and home science, that led to efforts in institutionalizing standards in scientific education and work. While there is definite nationalistic and political fervor, especially in Europe at that time, the very practice of science still operated independently of the apparatus of the state even if an individual scientist, or a group of scientists, may choose to practice certain ideologies (the French were known for their socialistic inclination, and Marx certainly did influence the way in which certain German scientists think about their own science). Few scientists, if any, were part of the bureaucratic setup. Most work independently, or collaborate in pairs or very small groups, among different satellite centers of research.

The Second World War changed everything. In fact, one can say that the first man on the moon was a culmination of a series of events happening since that period. It so happened that the war coincided with a period in which nuclear science research was peaking, and small-scale portable laboratory gave way to huge complexes built for research into nuclear energy for the purpose of war, which finally culminated in the building of the atomic bomb. Influential scientists, and those with known administrative and leadership capabilities, were appointed to the role of ‘foremen’ supervising large groups of scientists and engineers at work. There was much testosterone that drives the science of that period, and the excitement of winning the war had a role to play in driving the decisions made and directions taken. While not actively participating in the war until the unfortunate Pearl Harbor incident, the US had been the major supplier of wartime necessities to Europe (they did not yet have the competition from the then backwater Asia and the Europeans would certainly not be looking to the Japanese for supplies), which provided the surplus of funds that enabled the nation to become a major player of big science. After the war, many of the scientists involved, specifically the physicists, wanted to continue to do science in the manner of the powerhouse complexes even though a few wanted to return to small group and personal research. The end of the war also coincided with the reification of socialist states and the rise of the USSR that became a political and an ideological threat to the US. The development of the space program, born out of the surpluses and the imperative to not let the Soviets win, led to that triumphal walk on the moon. The drive to search for all the missing links to existing knowledge, to turn theoretical predictions of great possibilities into experimental and technological reality, as well as nationalistic (and regional) pride have fueled both policy-makers, politicians and scientists to argue for big flows of funding into supporting basic science, such as in physics. However, what is less discussed in public is the proportioning of the funds to the different fields and subfields of science: who gets the most money and why? One can just look into existing policy and budgetary reports that are in public domains and archives, to realize that much of the budgeting went into projects that will enhance the political clout and supremacy of the nation. One must not also forget that many agencies, such as NASA, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, were formed during the boom time of the postwar period. In the height of the cold war, the Defense Department also channeled large sums of money into the applied sciences for weapons development and tactical operations. Europe, while trying to recover from the after shocks of the war, also began streaming their efforts into scientific work (though the brain drain and murder of their scientists were major blows to their efforts), leading to the formation of CERN and the European Atomic Energy Community as a move to encourage nation and network building, and the practice of science for peaceful purposes. However, unlike the US, even the former European colonial powers found themselves depleted of the finances to participate in the sort of power-play science of the US-Soviet axis, at least in the beginning, though Western Europe recovered sufficiently a few decades later to become willing participants. The space science program was driven as much by political rivalries and the desire to make USA the uncontested superpower as it is by a desire to break new frontier paths in extraterrestrial territories. It also explained, why, even during the recession of the eighties, the space science continued to be well- supported, a far cry from its low-key existence in the twenty-first century.

Now comes that part of history often neglected by historians of science when outlining the Whiggish history of scientific progress. The story that seldom gets included is that, despite achieving great progress in scientific institution building, science was only for the privileged: mainly WASPY men, some European émigrés, a few home-grown American Jews, and a sprinkling of women who largely belong to the just-mentioned categories. If one could not pass for white, one can forget about obtaining most sorts of positions in the sciences. While there was a move in the northeastern universities to begin admitting men of color (but not the women) as a part of the anti-segregation practices of the 1950s and 60s, many of these men had nowhere to go upon graduation. Some were able to take up 'second-class' positions in historically black colleges but were denied the access and participation in most groundbreaking scientific programs. This was at a time when Neil Armstrong was taking a walk on the moon.  Much of the inequities since that time have not been completely addresses, as people of color are still under-represented in many American scientific institutions.

What of the South Americans, Asians and Africans? Besides Japan, which was able to industrialize due to the foresight of one of its emperors (and the fact it was never colonized), there was no infrastructure available, or even educational privilege, to enable these groups of people to become an Armstrong. In fact, in the 60s, a number of these countries were involved in civil wars and political unrest,s and were not even yet at the point of industrialization, nor in possession of technical know-how and technological tools (or the money) to create an equivalent to CERN, NASA or the NSF, or even to develop the knowledge they may have had prior to colonization. The only benefit that they have possibly stemmed from being able to quit their shackles as their colonial ‘masters’ had too much on their plate to exert an iron-grip, enabling many of these countries to agitate and negotiate for independence. In the last 50 years, we have seen new participants in the space age coming out of China, parts of South America, and India, even though not too much funding can be flowed into this since there are other priorities. However, for the most part, much of the third world still falls way behind when it comes to making scientific progress (especially of the newsworthy sort), even if a few of them had managed to be part of global experimental collaborations, such as what one finds at CERN, though most are marginal players. And in the world of big science, countries without the right GDP and means, continue to lag behind. It is salutary that there are attempts to make science education accessible and exciting to girls and under-represented groups at the K-12 level, but what of that at the level of college and beyond, when passion and innovation is often frustrated by certain practices that are not friendly to members of the less dominant group?  How should one even begin to address the inequities in countries with problematic institutions, politics and economics in trying to participate in cutting-edge science, even if that science is for the purpose of dealing with the inequities existing in those countries?

Moreover, in light of the crises hitting both Europe and the US, one may consider if the call by scientists (and some science journalists) for the return to frontier science, that would necessarily involve big budgets, to be disingenuous, and not a little self-absorbed, especially coming at a time budgetary deficits and major cuts even for critical research into areas with direct application for the public’s well-being such as health and environment, not to mention for the survival of important public institutions such as libraries, schools, and healthcare. While there is no denying that big science has contributed in many areas such as in the creation and innovation of cutting-edge technology that are transferred and applied into many areas, ranging from medicine to engineering to computing to the enhancement of everyday-use equipments, one still have to reconsider the balance at an age of depleting (financial) resources, and even rethink the manner in which science has been practiced up to this time. There is certainly a growing reversion to small-group and lower-budget research. It is vital that one assesses critically how one intends to maintain the growing of new knowledge, and even rethink the manner in which knowledge is accumulated, shared, disseminated, and applied, accounting for the inequities that exist. Maybe it is time to rethink the notion of the ‘frontier’ in sciences.

Armstrong is an icon, for sure, but he is an icon of an age that is not as golden as we would like to think, since it is an age that is marred, at an institutional level, by practices of discrimination. What we want to ingrain from that age is that drive towards radical ideas, innovation and creativity, but going beyond an emphasis on technical felicity to rethink the consequence of their deployment in scientific-knowledge construction. What we may wish to throw out is that condition of exclusivity, elitism, and the superman complex.

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