Today, as I was sitting at my desk and devouring a TV dinner that I had turned into a sandwich, I noticed a tweet by Matt Tuttle (aka: Anthroprobably) that linked to this article. The article in question discusses how funding for research often comes under attack when "Republicans control at least one house of Congress, as they are about to do." The article also lists a few instances when the politicians attacking certain research projects have been humorously mistaken. My favorite example is when Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) attacked the NSF for allocating funds for research into ATMs. He thought ATM stood for "automated teller machine" when it actually stood for "asynchronous transfer mode," a telecommunications innovation that is way over my IQ. Needless to say, some of these politicians don't do their research.
This periodic cycle of trying to cut funding to the sciences makes me lament the fall of the Soviet Union. Sure, living in a world that could be wiped out by nuclear holocaust was a little stressful (at least I think it was - I was a wee child in the early 80s), but the arms race spurred by the Cold War extended to far more than weaponry. Our need to best the Soviets at every turn led to huge research budgets, some of which took us to the moon. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s, education in science and math was at an all time high. The pressure exerted by the Soviet Union caused us to become a scientific and cultural power as well as a military one.
The vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union has removed a large impetus for us to excel in these fields. As we have grown smug and self-satisfied at our apparent Cold War victory, we have let ourselves backslide into what appears to be the dawning of a new Dark Age. Not only have science and math education suffered in the intervening decades, so have the humanities. Emerging nations like India and China seem to be on the verge of surpassing us in scientific and technological sectors. Some believe they already have.
When the hammer and sickle were looming over us, we responded with an unprecedented effort to become the world leader in science, technology, athletics, and every other conceivable aspect of humanity. Will we respond in a similar fashion when China really gets the ball rolling? I guess someone should remind these politicians that it is easier to hold ground than to retake it. It's too bad that we apparently need the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads to fulfill our potential.