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Science Talk

Science and America's Future

Argonne National Laboratory director Robert Rosner talks about the role of science in keeping America an economic leader. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites mentioned on this episode include

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the seven days starting March 12th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast we're going to talk about the current state and possible future of American science with the director of the Argonne National Laboratory, Robert Rosner. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Astrophysicist Robert Rosner chaired the University of Chicago Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. He later became chief scientist of the Argonne National Laboratory and in 2005 he was named the lab's director. I spoke to him at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February. First, some edited comments he made over breakfast to an audience of journalists.

Rosner: The issue really is from my perspective whether or not there is in fact in a connection between consistently supported research, especially basic research, at national prosperity the extent of which that is understood and not understood by the general public—the folks that actually pay the taxes, that make us actually do the work, that allow us to do the work and if one has a question about whether or not that connection in fact exists or not, whether it is understood, one only needs to look as far as the Omnibus Bill of 2007, the one that was passed late in December, that to everyone's surprise seemed to have contained lots of cuts to the basic science programs, especially the physical science programs in the United States. So I would like to talk a bit about what are the issues certainly from the point of view of the scientists, the lab director, and to think about how we connect research that we do today to the future of our nation decades from now.

So, first of all, a bit about Argonne. Argonne is the very first of the National laboratories. It started in 1943; it was an outgrowth of the Met Lab, which was, of course, part of the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago. CP-1, the very first reactor ever built& nuclear reactor was built at the University of Chicago and when time came to build the second one, the university decided that maybe its not such a good idea to keep doing this in the midst of a large metropolitan area. So, the idea was to move out to the prairie about 25 miles southwest of Chicago, and that's where Argonne was established. A key aim of our laboratory is to understand fundamental properties of matter at the molecular, atomic, and nuclear scales and to then put that understanding to use. So, if you look at our user facilities, we have the advanced photon source. It's the brightest x-ray source in the western hemisphere. We use it to study the structure of matter on the molecular, atomic scale. The Center for Nanoscale Materials and our microscopy facility, they do something similar but also are [in] the business of actually making things, inventing the materials. The Argonne Tandem-Linac Accelerator System (ATLAS) which is a machine that is designed to study the structure of matter on nuclear scales, to answer questions about what makes the nuclear activity. And finally the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, which has just starting to be stood up, it will be in the top five fastest, largest computers in the world by the time it's fully stood up in April of this year, and it's really all about modeling nature.

So, what kinds of things come out of, I think, in unsolvable facilities like this? Well, Abbott is in the business of developing drugs. They would like to speed up the development of drugs. They would like to do rational drug design, so they come to Argonne. They use a synchrotron to look at the structure of things that can possibly hurt you in terms of your health, and for example, looking at the AIDS virus, they were able to come up with [an] anti-AIDS drug that is today the best seller in the world, Kaletra, and the structural information to build Kaletra was, in fact, garnered at the Advanced Photon Source. One of the great issues of energy problem is to increase the efficiency of everything that we do. Low friction is at the heart of it and Argonne has been at the forefront of developing low-friction coatings with a nanocrystal of diamond, near frictionless carbon. The lab combines basic work and catalysis in chemistry with, your ability to think about, applications like fuel cells, new generations of lithium ion batteries, to work with industry to basically build high-capacity storage devices. We work on new technologies for storage instead of charge-based methods; for example, using the spin of materials, as in the field of spintronics.

I showed you what we do. What problem do we face? I think it is pretty well understood by folks that have actually looked at this issue that the lag between when you actually do invent something — you think about something and you think this is really a neat idea; you do the basic work and when you actually bring it to the marketplace and really has an impact. For example, in economy, that lag is very long, it's decades long. But if we think about the development of railroads—railroads actually started at the turn of the century, the 1790s to 1810s. In that period, the very first railroads were built then, the very first steam locomotives were built at the end of that year, but certainly in the United States, the railroad industry didn't really come to the floor until as the early as the 1860s. Our airplanes, well, they've been around for a century, but in terms of really impact, where everybody was fine, that really happened in the 1950s and '60s. The transistor, invented in 1947, the impact of the semiconductor revolution didn't really take off until the early 1960s. Computers, well they've been around since the 1940s in here, but when did they really make an impact in your lives? Late '70s, early '80s. Internet: the same thing. Arpanet: I remember as an undergraduate working on Arpanet back in Cambridge, it was using a teletype, I didn't have a computer, the lag between Arpanet and today's Internet was something of the order again of about 20 years and lasers invented in 1960 really coming into industrial use come in place—the lag was about 30 years. So, [for] each of these cases, if you had asked, well, does it make sense to make these initial investments based on some future? People would look, they would typically stare at you and start thinking, well, this is actually a science fiction, but the point is it's not science fiction. Case after case after case, we have examples of where an invention was made, and when it finally came to fruition as a commercial product—will really make a difference in everyday life—that lag was decades. Now, in a culture when you go to Wall Street, everything is about quarterly results. Having the patience to wait for results, to have a time scale of decades is really a lot to ask for and the question really I would like to pose to you: How do you convince the politics and the public that that lag in fact is real and that if you don't make the investments, for example, today, you ask them to be certain that 20 to 30 years from now we'll be lagging things that other folks that are making the investments in fact will lag. The second challenge has to do with the workforce pipeline and that's the pipeline here in the United States. When I look at my typical class that I teach in physics, what I see is typically a sea of white males, white males are not quite a vanishing breed in the United States, but they are certainly a decreasing part of the population. The folks that, I'll be talking more and more prominent some have been prominent all along. Women, they are not present in the workforce, the scientific workforce, or to more properly say they are tremendously underrepresented. This is true for African Americans, it's true for Hispanics, and it's devastating. Here's what I see as a smaller, smaller number of people that are born in the United States that actually sit in the classrooms that I teach. Now, part of it is has to do quite frankly with an image issue. You know, if you just think back on movies or television programs that you've seen in which scientists are portrayed—how often are they portrayed as nerds, weirdoes of some kind, remember the movie Weird Science? Certainly socially inept, perhaps even physically unattractive. Part two is the fact that if you ask yourself, take a very smart kid who is in college, just starting college, and wants to have a professional career and has a lot of intellectual drive. They ask themselves: now, let's see what am I going to be? They typically do read the newspaper and they do notice that for a given level of effort and you'd then be going to college, would then go to graduate school, they won't really be earning until they are in the late 20s at the earliest and they look at the newspaper and they hear about Omnibus Bill of 2007 and the fact the Congress kind of forgot that it's important to support science. You have to ask yourself ,for a kid like that who'd think about becoming a scientist, as opposed to, for example, a doctor maybe, you know, his/her parents are right—become a doctor or a lawyer and not a scientist. Furthermore, if you look at the funding landscape in the United States, the funding for science is an amazing roller coaster, highly unpredictable precisely in a field in which the time scale on which you train someone to be actually productive in the field is measured in decades. So, the variability and the funding landscape are completely inconsistent with the time scale that it takes to actually train somebody. The third issue has to do with solving the second problem in a kind of a backwards way. We could say, well, let's give up on, you know, we are never going to get convinced folks here in the United States. We're going to bring in the workforce from outside the United States. Believe it or not, I think you do know this, to some extent this has been a defect of policy in the United States for a long time—the brain drain that the Europeans have been talking about is all about this. In fact, the United States was a welcoming place for scientifically talented people to do their work here. I myself; I'm someone like that, I was not born in the United States, I was born in Germany, and I had my education, my science education and my science career here in the United States. One thing that is very noticeable within the last decade is actually a reversal of this brain drain. Part of it has to do with the fact that in many ways we have stopped being very welcoming to foreign scientists, it has to do with visa policies, has to do with policies about foreign residency and the second issue has to do with the fact that the advantages that we had during the '50s, '60s, '70s are slowly slipping away The economic advantages and the disadvantage of the folks on the outside. I was in China, in Shanghai and Beijing in May of last year and I visited a number of the Chinese Academy institutes in both cities and what was striking were two things: number one, they have built up an amazing scientific infrastructure in amazingly short time. The second is they are on a recruiting bench of Chinese scientists who are resident in the United States. Many of the leaders of the institutes in these two cities are folks that were trained in the United States and they basically have come home. This is also true in Europe. How do you explain all these things to the folks that actually support us? They are basically (unclear 12:42) for doing the research that do the science. I think it is true that in D.C. when I do show up and talk to house staffers, senate staffers, there typically, we are viewed as just another bunch of folks that are coming in to feed at the public trough. We just want our money and that's it. But I think the fundamental issue, the really deeper issue that is not appreciated is the fact the science, quite a fact, is not an entitlement problem. It really is the basis of our prosperity of who we are today and what we will be in the future, what our kids will be doing, what our grandkids will be doing. That kind of life that they will have; the kind of standard of living that they will have; it's not a luxury.

So, just to sum up, I think it's true that typically we like reading science magazines; get all about transmitting intellectual content and the excitement of the field, and [I] have to admit I resonate with that tremendously because I'm excited myself, I love to read science. But we all know that in the United States there are long traditions of anti-intellectualism, of what the Times today also refer to as anti-rationalism, the idea that there really are no facts, it's all opinion, the idea that scientists [are] just playing their sand box and don't connect with anybody. And so I think the issue of finding that the public perception is that there is really a disconnect between what scientists do and prosperity, but that really is a major issue. I was& just to give you a concrete example that just occurred a few weeks ago, I visited Johnson Controls, a major manufacturer in the United States, their battery division. The battery division is in Milwaukee and we were talking about their R&D program and what I was told was that they do& their battery program, much of the R&D is presently conducted in France. They would very much like to bring that R&D program back to United States. They cannot. Why? They can't find the technical workforce to staff that R&D program in Milwaukee. It's devastating. That is devastating but that's where we are. I hate to be so somber about these things, but you know, I think these are serious issues and I must say that coming up with ideas for how to convince the public that there is an issue and that there isn't much time left, that we really need to get going and to think of, you know, what happens as companies like Johnson Controls, which are multinational, realize more and more that if they want to progress if they want to be at the leading edge on the commercial side, then they aren't going to look for the R&D workforce that they need outside the United States. So, you know, we have really begun to see the exit of this, I think. I have absolutely no problem with science advancing around the world. Science progress will occur somewhere and the issue really is for the United States to ask, well, what kind of country you really want to live in? Do we want to live in a country that participates in these events or not? That's a choice you can make. We could end up being in a country that basically lives off the surface economy in that, you know, which way the economy will go, what the standard of living will be in 30 to 40 years, if we want to be an industrially developed country and my argument is that to be industrially well bred you have to also be scientifically well bred because science is what actually pushes you in the industrial realm. Without the science base, you cannot build an industrial base. United States will never again be a country that will be all powerful in the commodity industrial business. We will never again be the place where most of the steel in the world is being produced. Those places will be China, India, and so on, but what about the high-tech industry? What about things, like, because of things that Johnson Controls produces or that IBM produces? Are we willing to settle for the fact that IBM is bringing its research labs in places like Zurich and other places, Beijing, Moscow? Do we want them to continue to stay here in United States, Yorktown Heights in New York? They won't if they don't see a simpler workforce, because those folks don't hire just anybody, they hire [who] they want, the very best, and do we produce them or not? That's the question.

Steve: I caught up with Dr. Rosner for a few minutes after his talk.

Rosner: Pleasure to talk to you Steve.

Steve: Can you give me some details about—you talked about the disaster, you called it, of the 2007 Omnibus Bill. Were the consequences of this kind of political activity for the country?

Rosner: I think that the issue was down to something as simple as the following: For almost three years, we've had a clearly expressed willingness in Washington to support science and that willingness appeared in the form of, for example, the proposed budgets for the science agencies. What has been so devastating is that in for the last 3 fiscal years, we've had continuing resolutions that is on October 1, we've been faced with budgets that are basically the same budget as the previous year in one case, in fiscal year '06, the continued resolution lasted the entire year. In the present fiscal year we're finding that, now I'm coming to the Omnibus Bill, that not only are we level funded but more than that certainly areas of science were actually targeted for real decreases, for example, in fusion science the ITER project, which is where the United States is collaborating with Europeans and Japan and rest of the world was zeroed out. In high-energy physics, the major projects for the future in high energy physics had their budgets cut severely.

Steve: I referred about the troubles at Fermi Lab with their budgets.

Rosner: Precisely. And in our case, we've in Argonne, we've seen cuts in areas as desperate as the light source. The light source has had budgetary impact and we have a Neutron Scattering Facility that basically had to be closed permanently because of the budget cuts.

Steve: You also talked about how Sputnik had invigorated American science because there was, you know, let me use the phrase, there is a clear and present danger that people thought was there. [Is that] What it takes to get the American public and our elected officials to get back into this idea of we really have to just completely rev up our science infrastructure?

Rosner: I think part of the issue is that when the rallying cry that's aimed at defense, for example using 9/11 as an example. I think the difficulty there is that is fatigue on the part of the public. You can only appeal to an event like that for so long and&

Steve: &as Rudy Giuliani found out apparently.

Rosner: Exactly! And so what one has to focus on, I think, are things that are visceral, that are ever present in people's lives. Certainly World War II was that. Sputnik was that because people could actually see that the Russian satellite crossing over the United States. Here what we have to talk about, I think, is the reality of Detroit, looking at huge layoffs in their workforce huge layoffs, other industries, the steel industry, even the high-tech industry suffer and we have to ask ourselves, you know, is it just a hiccup or is it a symptom of something that is much more profound which is, in a way, the end of industrialization of the United States, that's the issue. And that, I think, can be a visceral issue for folks because all they need to do is look around themselves and see where are the folks that are building new things. What will my kids be doing in 10 to 15 years? What will my children's children be doing? Will they have decent jobs or will they not? And I think that the visceral question that we have to answer and we have to be able to say [is] that if we do make these investments that I have been talking about, if we do invest now in scientific infrastructure, then we can have a positive answer to these questions  what our kids, or our kids' kids will be doing. But if we don't, we also will have an answer but it's going to be very depressive.

Steve: You talked about the challenges to getting young people involved in the early stages of scientific career, the commitment to scientific education at the undergraduate and graduate school level, and some of those are the negative stereotypes of scientists and perhaps the noncompetitive nature of salaries, but one thing you didn't mention that I think is really important is it's hard; it's hard. It's really hard to be a graduate student in the sciences. You've got to work really hard. How do you motivate people to invest, let's face it, you might be in graduate school for six to seven years, if you get out in three or four with a Ph.D. you are a real star. How do you get people to commit to that kind of an effort?

Rosner: So, I have a couple of answers to that. The first point is that I think you underestimate the American drive for hard work. One very interesting statistic that was just banded about just last week I heard about is the amount of hours spent by Americans working is the typical work week for Americans compared to say Europeans.

Steve: Yes, they work many more hours; it's true.

Rosner: Americans work much more absolutely, okay. If you look at folks that for example go into financial industry, the hours that they spend working are just enormous and they are every bit as hardworking as a graduate student in physics or chemistry or mathematics. So, I don't think the issue is lack of willingness to work hard. I think the issue is, what's the reward after you've done this work? If you are in financial industry you know exactly what the work will be. If you are a doctor you go to medical school, work hard, you know exactly what your work will be. You are pretty much guaranteed that there will be a reward. In science that does not exist, that is the key thing. You could work very hard for the six to seven years that you referred to, come out, and find that well because of budget cutbacks, in fact there are no jobs. That's the reality out there.

Steve: You know, I don't want to leave the listeners with that. Because they're all going to run back and say "Okay, I am going to be an English major after all."

Rosner: So the point is that if you have passion for what you do, I think it is the case that you can find a good job. And, you know, most of us that have gone through science, we've gone through this roller coaster for years. When I came out of graduate school in the late 1970s in what I do, the field I was there, which was mathematical physics, there was basically no jobs. And the fact of the matter is that I loved what I do enough that I lived through that period. The question just is, are there enough people like me? That's really what it comes down to.

Steve: For more on the Argonne National Lab, just go to and don't miss the little item there on the Rube Goldberg Hamburger Building Competition that takes place on March 22nd at the Chicago Children's Museum.

(music plays)

Now it is time to play TOTALL&&. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL&&. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Cameras at red lights actually increase crashes and injuries.

Story number 2: Study subjects given placebos that cost more reported they were more effective than cheaper placebos.

Story number 3: The video of Gnarls Barkley's new single called Run has been banned from MTV because it includes subliminal messages that are only visible on high-definition TV sets.

And story number 4: U.S. military personnel at a base in Iraq were given treated but untested waste water for two years for use in showers and shaving.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. Cameras at red lights appear to be counterproductive and wind up causing more accidents than they discourage. That's according to a study out of the University of South Florida, College of Public Health. Fore more, check out the March 12th episode of the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science.

Story number 2 is true. Allegedly costlier placebos worked better in a study published in the March 5th Journal of the American Medical Association. M.I.T. researchers gave light electric shocks to 82 volunteers. Half were then told they were getting a $2.50 pain-killing pill, the other half were told the price was 10 cents per pill. 85 percent of the subjects said the shock was less painful after getting the expensive pill. Only 61 percent said it was less painful with the cheaper pill, neither of which really did anything. So from now on I'm taking really expensive pills that don't do anything.

And story number 4 is true. U.S. military personnel at a base in Iraq were given untested wastewater for two years. The contractor KBR was in charge of the operation. The Pentagon's inspector general said that health problems may have resulted from the untested water supply which went to showers and latrines. SpanishAmerican war, Upton Sinclair, anybody? Anybody?

All of which means that story number 3 about the Gnarls Barkley video being banned from MTV because of subliminal messages is TOTALL&&. Y BOGUS, because what is true is that the video was banned after failing the Harding Test, which is designed to protect viewers from having seizures. The video includes a strobe effect that according to the test results could have caused seizures in any epileptic viewers. Of course the most powerful known TV seizure inducer is Mary Hart's voice or you may think that was just the plot of a science filled episode, but a woman apparently really did get seizures from Hart's voice. The case was written up in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1991. The woman was given strict orders not to watch Entertainment Tonight; I inadvertently follow the same antiseizure regimen.

(music plays)

Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at and check out for the latest science news, videos and blogs. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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