Friday, January 10, 2014

Canada is destroying a generation of scientists

My department is in a Faculty of Medicine and the main source of research funding for biomedical sciences in Canada is the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The current Conservative Government has been consistently underfunding CIHR over the past six years so that the number of grants available for basic research (e.g. biochemistry and molecular biology) has been falling.

This is the time of the year when my colleagues hear the results of the latest grant competitions. It's been a sad couple of days because four labs failed to get funding for their main research projects. Eight other labs failed to get additional funding for ongoing projects that were not part of their main grant.

What does this mean? Let's think about the consequences for labs that lose their grants. In the short term, the lab will survive until the next application deadline but it means that the Professor running the lab can't take on any new graduate students or post-docs no matter how brilliant they might be. In some cases, the department, or the university, might have to provide "bridging" funds in order to pay the salaries and stipends of people in the lab. If the Professor manages to get the grant back in the next competition then a recovery is possible but a lot of damage has already been done.

However, in many cases the second or third attempts to recover funding are not successful and the lab must shut down. That's the situation we face in our department with several active research groups that have disappeared or are about to disappear.

The first people to be let go are the post-docs who are funded from the grant. They have to scramble to find a new position and this isn't easy. It could be the end of their career.

The most expensive people in the lab are the research technicians ($50-60,000 per year1). They have to be put on notice and they will be fired. These are scientists with advanced degrees who are the heart and soul of a research lab. They are mostly women in mid-career. Many of them will never find another position that pays as well.

Graduate students who are close to finishing can usually be helped but those at the beginning of their studies have to switch to another lab and start a new project. This may not be possible.

Our research labs have two or three undergraduate students doing research projects as part of their degree requirements. As we lose more and more active labs, we also lose the ability to train undergraduates. We also hire undergraduate to work in labs over the summer and this provides invaluable experience in preparation for graduate school. If you don't have a funded lab you can't hire students. If you lose part of your funding, the easiest way to save money is not to hire anyone.

The groups that are losing their grants are the backbone of Canadian research infrastructure. The typical lab has three or four graduate students, a post-doc, and a research technician (research associate, lab manager). It takes about $150,000 per year to sustain such a lab. The Professor who runs the lab is usually between 30 and 40 years old (mid-career). The lab is producing several papers a year in respectable journals. These labs would easily have been funded a decade ago when the success rate on grant applications was 25% but now that it's down to 15% they are being cut out of the system.

Even those labs that are still funded are affected when a colleague loses a grant. That's because there's a lot of sharing of equipment and resources and expertise. We can foresee a time when the department falls below a critical mass of active research labs and when that happens everyone will lose their grants. Morale is already at an all-time low. Students and faculty are more worried about survival than science.

A generation of mid-career scientists is being destroyed by the policies of the Canadian government. Graduate students, post-docs, technicians, and undergraduates are being affected. It might take another generation to recover if funding were to return to appropriate levels. We might never recover if something isn't done soon.

Here at the University of Toronto we used to talk about becoming a world-class research centre. We don't talk about that very much any more.


1. Salary plus benefits.

47 comments :

  1. Larry said:

    "I find it necessary to point out that most Intelligent Design Creationists are stupid. One easy way to do this is to refer to them as IDiots... I consider it to be part of my professional responsibilty since my goal is to create a more rational society by eliminating superstition."

    Ordinary people (ie IDiots) pay for science with their taxes, and fund science through their elected representatives.

    And Larry wonders why superstitious IDiots seem reluctant to keep paying the salaries of people who call them superstitious IDiots.

    Cognitive dissonance doesn't play a big role in Larry's thinking.

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    1. So are you claiming that the policies of the Canadian gov't is being determined by creationist IDiots? That the decisions the Harper gov't has made regarding science funding is in retaliation for comments made against creationists? Is it only evolutionary biology that is suffering these funding cuts, and no other areas of science? Or is Stephen Harper gutting physics and chemistry labs because some biologist called creationist "IDiots"?

      Or is this just another of your incoherent, content-free screeds?

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    2. Lutesuite:

      I'll type slowly so you understand. Scientists are contract workers. They get grants from patrons. Their patrons are voters. Most voters are superstitious IDiots, in Larryspeak.

      Call you patrons insulting names if you wish, but don't act surprised when your income stream slows down.

      Arrogance and corruption in professional science is endemic and obvious to ordinary people, and they will make you pay for it.

      Do you know how to scrub toilets?

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    3. Once again, Dr. Egnor types a bunch of words that have little, if any, relevance to the post to which he is supposedly replying.

      One more time: Is your claim that the Harper gov't's policy on science funding is motivated by the desire to punish scientists who criticize Intelligent Design creationists?

      If yes, then please provide some evidence to substantiate this.

      If no, then exactly what are you ranting about?

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    4. @mregnor,

      I'll type slowly so you can understand.

      Most voters in Canada are NOT IDiots. Neither are voters in most Western European countries that do a much better job of funding basic science.

      On the other hand, a lot American voters ARE IDiots (or worse) but the USA has done a pretty good job of funding basic science and even evolutionary biology.

      Do you always have trouble making logical arguments? Does it affect your patients?

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    5. BTW, do you have any thoughts on the main concerns Larry raises in his post? Even if many scientists are arrogant and corrupt, as you claim, do you think society benefits if scientific research is halted? How much of the techniques and technology you use as a neurosurgeon would be available to you if it weren't for the work of basic scientists?

      Or does it not matter to you how many of your patients suffer and die, so long as those who dare criticize your superstitious beliefs are punished?

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    6. I'm not ranting. Gloating is closer to it.

      I'm pointing out (it gets so tiresome) that the people who pay your salary are the people who you insult.

      Of course there are all sorts of reasons that science funding is inadequate, even diminishing, but you are delusional if you think that your incessant derision of the people who pay for it has nothing to do with it.

      Ordinary folks believe in God and don't like to be called stupid. Why would they be enthusiastic about increasing the salaries of people who insult them?

      I personally think that defunding is a very effective way to deal with assholes. If I had my way, the whole evolutionary biology project would be defunded like yesterday. I would resume funding for selected evolutionary biologists under two circumstances:

      1) Their work is of high quality and importance (eliminating 90% of them)

      2) They weren't using the status and opportunities gained by research funding to publicize their ignorant atheist metaphysics.

      I think that defunding is an excellent way to deal with you bastards. Why would I want to pay for junk science by bigot scientists?

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    7. (My last post was in response to mregnor,.)

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    8. [Or does it not matter to you how many of your patients suffer and die, so long as those who dare criticize your superstitious beliefs are punished?]

      Hmm... should we spend $500,000 funding an evolutionary psychology lab, or should we spend $500,000 funding a pediatric neurosurgeon at a Children's Trauma Center?

      There's a critical shortage of pediatric neurosurgeons. Is there a critical shortage of evolutionary biologists? How should we best spend our money, to protect patients?

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    9. Larry said:

      "Most voters in Canada are NOT IDiots..."

      Then heck, Larry, you've got nothin' to fret about.

      So you won't mind while I make you the public face of science. Mind if I use your quotes about Christians being IDiots, and about failing Christian students because they accept Christian theology?

      When voters pull those levers to elect people who fund science, I want them to see your face in their minds. Or brains or whatever you think the mind is.

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    10. So your belief is that it is only evolutionary biologists who are being affected by these funding cuts?

      As someone who works in a university-affiliated quaternary care hospital (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) that does large amounts of both basic science and clinical research, I can assure you that is not the case.

      In response to your proposed hypothetical dilemma: Should one fund an evolutionary biology lab or a pediatric neurosurgeon? The Canadian gov'ts response seems to be: Neither. Cut them both, and use the money to fund something called "The Office of Religious Freedom."

      http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/4-questions-about-canada-s-new-office-of-religious-freedom-1.1328042

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    11. And IDiots deny that they are anti-science.

      Thanks for showing what a lie that is, Dr. Egnor.

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    12. mregnorFriday, January 10, 2014 12:31:00 PM

      Hmm... should we spend $500,000 funding an evolutionary psychology lab, or should we spend $500,000 funding a pediatric neurosurgeon at a Children's Trauma Center?


      What a conveniently chosen example.

      I don't like giving standard politically correct answers to such questions so I am going to give you the much more blunt answer.

      But first, let me point out that if you defund all basic science, you will end up with the situation we had centuries ago - doctors applying empirically derived recipes for treating patients without actually understanding why they work, and not having the reasoning tools needed to figure out what to do when they find themselves in unfamiliar situations.

      Then we come to the question of what is more valuable in an example like yours. A lot of evolutionary psychology has the characteristics of pseudoscience (not the field in general, just how it's practiced), so I'd rather substitute string theory or research on microbial diversity for it. A simple fact of life is that as individuals we all die sooner or later and that's inevitable. The more important thing is to ensure the survival of the human species long-term, and the best evolutionary asset we have is the scientific knowledge and understanding of the world around us that we have accumulated. Improving that understanding is always going to be more valuable than extending the lifespan of individual human beings and that's without considering the extension of the lifespan of future human beings that tends to be a side-effect of further accumulation of scientific knowledge.

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    13. mregnorFriday, January 10, 2014 12:27:00 PM
      Ordinary folks believe in God and don't like to be called stupid. Why would they be enthusiastic about increasing the salaries of people who insult them?


      1. May I point out the simple truth that whether God exists and whether you are stupid is not determined by your own opinion on the matter?

      2. The vast majority of scientists have been way too careful not to call people stupid, in fact the ones that have done so tend to be at stages in their careers where they are no longer begging for money from the government.

      I personally think that defunding is a very effective way to deal with assholes. If I had my way, the whole evolutionary biology project would be defunded like yesterday. I would resume funding for selected evolutionary biologists under two circumstances:

      1) Their work is of high quality and importance (eliminating 90% of them)

      2) They weren't using the status and opportunities gained by research funding to publicize their ignorant atheist metaphysics.


      And who exactly is going to decide whose work is "important" and of high quality and whose work is not? People like you who have zero understanding of it? Sounds like a good plan...

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    14. Two more things I forgot to mention:

      1) There is a fixed number of surgeons a society needs - once you have them, you don't get much benefit from adding more. Science, in contrast, is open-ended. In principle we could have large portions of the population occupied with research and we would be better off than what we have now (which is a system in which the majority of the population is occupied with activities the sole purpose of which is economic growth for the sake of economic growth and the sole result of which is the dissipation of valuable resources and the wrecking of our environment with zero useful contribution to mankind).

      2. There is a very strong coupling between creationism and a certain sociopolitical ideology that advocates the denial of health care to all except those that can afford to pay for it. Thus it is highly likely that Mr. Egnor is supporting the funding of that pediatric neurosurgeon while quite willing to deny his services to the majority of the people who need them..

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    15. [There is a very strong coupling between creationism and a certain sociopolitical ideology that advocates the denial of health care to all except those that can afford to pay for it. Thus it is highly likely that Mr. Egnor is supporting the funding of that pediatric neurosurgeon while quite willing to deny his services to the majority of the people who need them..]


      I take care of indigent kids daily. I could double my salary by changing my subspeciality. I never deny services based on money, and never will.

      May I suggest that you do as much charity science as I do charity surgery.

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    16. Matthew 6:3

      But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

      Matthew 23:23.

      Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

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  2. Dr. Egnor has delusions of grandeur if he thinks he and the other Intelligent Design folks stand as proxies for most Christians, or that voters are worried about whether scientists are atheists. This is particularly the case in Canada, but it is also true of the U.S. Watchers of Fox News might believe otherwise, but then surveys have demonstrated watchers of Fox News actually get more questions about current events wrong than people who watch no news at all - i.e., watching Fox News actively makes you more ignorant.

    The only thing Dr. Moran says that I wonder about is "USA has done a pretty good job of funding basic science and even evolutionary biology." I hope he's right.

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    1. Anyone who would led a schmuck like Egnor come within a 100 feet of him/her with a scalpel had better pray.

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  3. Re Larry Moran

    The situation in Canada is a harbinger of what the situation in its southern neighbor will be if a Tea party Rethuglican is elected president in 2016.

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    1. paylines are low in the US as well, i dont think that is because democrats hate science

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  4. By the way, I understand that something similar is happening in Great Britain. It looks like the Western World is going to cede the future to East Asia.

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    1. The very short-term future. There isn't much of a long-term one.

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  5. Egnor is showing the classic, stereotypical narcissism of a professional surgeon. And it is not very flattering. He's a glorified human mechanic with a super-inflated salary (speaking of the people who pay your salary, what does god think about all the childrens' families you put into massive debt when they require an expensive procedure?), and feels a need to rub it in everyone else's face. Especially those godless atheist "bastards" wasting all our good tax money doing necessary research that his field heavily benefits from. He's made me realize something. If/when I ever need surgery I'm going to make sure my surgeon is an atheist; I don't want someone like Mr. Egnor relying only on 'god' or superstition as opposed to rationality and empiricism to fix me up. If these are the type people lining the coffers of churches and creationist/IDiot hucksters, then it's no wonder the snake-oil salesmen are doing so well for themselves.

    I fear it's not long before our research programs in the US are beaten up by these types of people. The conservatives are rallying behind dogma and anger as they keep moving further to the right, mangling governmental spending budges as they wish.

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    1. [what does god think about all the childrens' families you put into massive debt when they require an expensive procedure?),

      I have never asked that a debt be brought to collection in 30 years of practice. I save lives for free regularly. And I'm happy and privileged to do it.

      [If/when I ever need surgery I'm going to make sure my surgeon is an atheist]

      There aren't many atheist neurosurgeons. If you base your decision on a surgeon on religion, why would I trust that you didn't base your scientific views on religious criteria as well? You science is a stupid as your choice of doctors.

      [I fear it's not long before our research programs in the US are beaten up by these types of people.]

      Evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology could use a good thrashing.

      [The conservatives are rallying behind dogma and anger as they keep moving further to the right, mangling governmental spending budges as they wish.

      ]

      Doesn't democracy just suck.

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    2. Dr Egnor - Though you live not far from the border you do not understand Canadian politics. Nor have you read and understood what Larry is saying. The Canadian electorate are not IDiots a minority of them voted in the Harper Conservative Government. He managed to convince enough voters that he wasn't the total right wing tea party extremist he is. One way he did this was to not allow the loony social conservatives in his party to try to raise the questions on things we Canadians hold dear such as - The right to abortion, gay marriage and above all universal state financed medicare . Things that you no doubt oppose.

      This was designed to give him a free hand in his extreme tea party like fiscal conservatism while reining in his social conservatives. Thus he has general cuts to government funded agencies. Science is hit big. Not just evolutionary biology. Just all basic science. There is one clear ideological stance to their budgetary attacks on science it is the attempt to stifle as much environmental research as possible. This is primarily to help suppress any opposition to the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands. It is part of an overall attack on scientific epistemology. It is the belief that government policy should be based on ideological prejudice not on scientific evidence. It is the same ideology in capitalist form that drove the old Soviet Union - increase production as fast as possible without regard to the social and environmental costs.

      I am sure that some research is being cut in areas that even someone like Dr. Egnor with primitive bronze age moral values and ethics would still support.

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  6. NSERC budget: $1.1 billion
    Crappy helicopters that don't work: $1.7 billion

    THAT'S THE PROBLEM.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/1-7b-already-spent-on-troubled-cyclone-helicopters-1.2491268?cmp=fbtl

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  7. Well, the main thing I learned here is that mregnor is exactly as egnorant(as in volitionally ignorant) as I expected, and is actively advocating anti-science policy because the actual science(which mregnor doesn't comprehend) as performed by qualified scientists he don't like, doesn't genuflect before his bronze-age mythology of choice, by wanting to defund all of it.

    Effectively mregnor is saying "I don't like it, consequently I don't want to understand it and so if I had my way, I would totally eliminate it". Thanks mregnor, that's what I needed to hear. Rarely do IDcreationists (IDiots) such as yourself allow themselves so explicitly to show just how anti-science they really are.

    Theocracy or bust!

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  8. As a Canadian and sort of influential (not in the funding department of science as much BTW, and because Canada seems to me to be the most beautiful country in the world) I see a shift among the people who make decisions who gets the funding and for what. Larry may be right once; taxpayers in Canada want to know where their money is going and why. I don't blame them. If one gets $147 to install a pencil sharpener in a school, why not give this money for research? It is a noble idea, but what kind of research are we talking about.Two fruit-flies going into an evolutionary deade-end or is it reahhhhhy science??? I don't know much in this shit but i can "count' along with my citizens :)
    Evouldivo boys like Larry may think that I'm against their research. It is actually the opposite. I almost lost my riding because some christian/Evouldivonists thought I was an dam atheist. For the record ONE MORE TIME: I'M NOT AN EVOLUTIONIST IN DARWINIAN SENSE

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    1. Wait. Is LouiseG claiming to be an MP here?

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. You made one of your typically incoherent responses to John Harshman's very reasonable question, "LouiseG", and then deleted it, leaving his question unanswered.

      So, again: Why are you claiming that you are an MP or member of a provincial or territorial legislature? Is that because you are one? Or do you just like to pretend you're a politician while on the internet?

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  9. The CBC news program The Fifth Estate ran an episode last night that details the effects of the Harper gov't's policy on science, and how scientific research is being jeopardized for ideological reasons. It can be viewed online here:

    http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2013-2014/the-silence-of-the-labs

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    1. The "transformation" of the Canadian Museum of Civilization into the Canadian Museum of History is a symbolic move. "Presenting a narrative national history" and "fostering a strong sense of Canadian identity" are surely dearer to conservative politicians than research, conservation and education (in any order).

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    2. Quite.

      For those without the time to watch the video, the most surprising example came at the beginning. Much of the rest of the program focussed on how the the gov't is defunding or suppressing research that demonstrates the negative environmental effects of oil extraction from the tar sands. While infuriating, that is not exactly news.

      You wouldn't, however, expect a field like archeology to be affected by this. But the program also documented an archaeologist who was doing research on early Viking settlements in the Arctic. Her work apparently arose wide interest, not only among her fellow academics, but in mainstream outlets like National Geographic. You'd think this would be the type of attention the gov't would crave to promote Canadian scientific and academic achievement.

      However, the gov't has as one of its chief priorities asserting Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic, in order to take advantage of the seaways that are now opening up there as a result of climate change, and to exploit its mineral and petrochemical resources. Part of this scheme involves emphasizing research on the British explorations to find the Northwest Passage, in order to strengthen our territorial claims to the region. Research that demonstrated that other European civilizations may have established settlements there before the arrival of the British decidedly works against this goal. So the project was unceremoniously cut, and its chief researcher was told she had half an hour to collect whatever material she thought she needed and clear out.

      Disgusting.

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    3. Re lutesuit

      However, the gov't has as one of its chief priorities asserting Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic, in order to take advantage of the seaways that are now opening up there as a result of climate change, and to exploit its mineral and petrochemical resources.

      Which, like their Tea Party cousins in Canada's southern neighbor, they deny is occurring.

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    4. That's actually not correct. While I don't doubt that there are climate change deniers in the back benches of the Conservative Party, Harper's official policy is that climate change is a real and serious problem, and his party is doing everything possible to combat it, so long as revenue from oil drilling is not unduly jeopardized.

      You can probably guess how that policy works in practice.

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  10. Shorter Egnor: I don't like those arrogant scientists so let's cut off their water and concede the future scientific progress to East Asia.

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  11. OK, Let's pretend I'm in charge of the money for evolution lab shit. Why should I finance evolution lab/ and shit? How does this help a regular Joe Blow? How does that help the society? I'm not turning on Larry and the team. I'm just curious what the real needs are since Canada has funded shit on the moon almost literally.

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    1. Is science only worth doing if it helps regular Joe Blow?

      How many Joe Blows are enough for it to be worth it? What fraction of society must benefit, and how do we quantify whether they benefit enough?

      What time-lag is acceptable between basic research and results that translate into something useful for Joe Blow?

      What constitutes "help" to regular Joe Blow? Could different Joes benefit in different ways? Could it be useless to you but useful to me?

      Quick, simple one, since you're all about how it benefits Joe Blow and society: Research in evolution helps us understand how to combat evolving viruses and resistant bacteria.

      Is this useful to regular Joe Blow?

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    2. You didn't answer my questions before? Do you want me to take you seriously? Why should I do that? Give me one reason. !

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    3. How does this help a regular Joe Blow?

      Help can not be given to the unwilling to receive it.

      How does that help the society?

      Improved understanding of the world around us is always a good thing.

      While we're at it, how does the majority of the activity that counts towards GDP help society? I should not have to provide a list of specific things, but I can if you want me to

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    4. There was a paper published in 1908 on the subject of stimulated nuclear emission of photons by an somewhat obscure employee of the Swiss Patent Office. Now one might say, how does this result help the regular Joe Blow? Well, from this research has come the multibillion dollar (US) industry know as lasers. I'm sure that regular Joe Blow, LouiseG, has a CD/DVD player in her computer, which utilize lasers as the the vehicle for interpreting the information on CD/DVDs.

      The moral is, basic research often leads to developments that produce revenues far in excess of that which went into the support of the research.

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    5. Why should I finance evolution lab/ and shit? How does this help a regular Joe Blow? How does that help the society?

      Yeah, how does science help anything, she typed into her computer so it could be read on the Internet.

      [facepalm]

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    6. How does this help a regular Joe Blow?

      Regular Joe Blow has two choices. Either he can understand and accept something that it true, like evolution, or he can believe superstitious nonsense, like creationism.

      Some of us think that it's better to accept reality and live in a rational world. Obviously, there are others who think that it doesn't really matter what Joe Blow believes.

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    7. LouisG, please read this Congressional hearing about funding of the Fermilabs: http://history.fnal.gov/testimony.html

      In particular US Senator Pastore asks whether building a particle accelerator will help US defense, or give the US any competritive edge over the USSR. Dr Robert Wilson, the first director of Fermi labs replies:

      "Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

      In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending."

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