Thursday, May 7, 2015

Projecting the Future:

Some Bad Omens?

I am going to depart a little from my normal themes in this blog and talk about issues that are not themselves directly related to nuclear power.  However, they do relate to some indicators in the areas of research and of technical training that apply to a broad range of disciplines, nuclear among them. 

The first warning bell I saw in the last few days was a report on an MIT study that warned that the U.S. is falling behind in a number of key areas of research.  While none of the areas they mention included fission-related research, the very fact that the report identifies a broad range of cutting-edge research areas is troubling.  First, the areas they identify represent some of the key areas of technology today.  Second, it is not hard to guess that the key areas are indicators of a broader trend that affects many more areas of research.

Like the slow loading of straw on a camel that ultimately breaks the camel's back, each small budget cut in science and technology areas probably seems inconsequential to most people.  However, adding them all together--fewer research programs, less research in the remaining areas, cuts in staffing, cuts in training--suggests that the impact will be far greater than even the programs the MIT study names.  Not only will we not realize the benefits of the advances that R&D can bring, we will end up without a next generation of scientists to carry R&D further in the future.

The second warning bell I saw was a study that suggested that environmental sciences programs have a bias against nuclear energy.  At one level, of course, this clearly has a direct effect on nuclear energy.  It reinforces the gulf that many believe already exists between the environmental community and the nuclear community.  It hampers the ability of two groups who should be natural allies from working together.

However, what is even more troubling to me is, once again, the broader implications of biased education.  If environmental sciences students are not being trained to look dispassionately at nuclear power, I have to wonder what other biases are coloring their judgment.  Are they ignoring the downsides of some technologies because they are perceived to be "green"?  Are they dismissing options that should be considered because they are perceived to be "dirty"?  Are they failing to look beyond the surface to see the balance of pros and cons between different options, or to look at how a perceived weakness in one technology can be compensated?  If environmental sciences students are not being trained to look analytically at all issues and all possibilities, they will not come up with the best solutions.

The investments we make today will inevitably shape the future.  Just as we need robust research in a broad range of areas, we also need to train future scientists, engineers and decision-makers to approach all issues without preconceived biases to assure that the decisions they make are based on sound science.  This applies to decisions about nuclear power, but it also potentially applies to many other issues as well.

As perhaps a fitting postscript, I include here a photo of a package of irradiated hamburgers.  I covered the issue of food irradiation before, so I won't repeat myself here.  However, irradiated beef strikes me as just the kind of issue that people often approach with preconceived biases.  Perhaps in this case it isn't environmental science students who have this bias (or perhaps it is!--I really don't know), but to me, it is another graphic reminder of how biases sometimes seem to block people from looking at issues objectively, and how those biases sometimes prevent, or make it difficult, for us to enjoy the full benefits of some technologies.



  1. NOW:
    No sooner than the Indian Point transformer fire was put out was Hudson River Alliance and Gov Cuomo already hawking spots of how unsafe nukes "inherently" are on New York-1 cable TV -- a Time Warner Company. Plus proclaiming that this will impact any decisions on Upstate plants. Other NYC local stations are as berserk over this incident. Now is the time for nuclear professional organizations to get off their blogs and go mass media like the far less well funded nuclear opponents.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. Decreased funding for research or scientific pursuits has secondary (tertiary?) effects that may not be obvious, but which may deeply impact the USA's ability in these areas.

    For example, I'm an older engineer with great reviews and a work history which suggests that my employers have been pleased with my work. Yet, when I was laid off as the least experience person on the team (2nd engineering career, electrical vs. aerospace), it was extremely difficult to find another position, because of absurd hiring practices by HR departments at corporations (will omit details for brevity). Corps would rather hire only people newly graduated (even though I took refresher classes during my unemployement) or foreigners on HiB visas.

    I am certainly not going to recommend to my child or anyone else that they pursue a career in engineering. There's no security there any more.

    The sciences are likely experiencing similar effects as any position is subject to the whimsy of politicians and a public which does not value science.

    Why in the world would those of us in the the STEM fields encourage others to enter them when society has made it clear we are so lowly valued.

    Of course, it's true that some folks have a true vocation for technical subjects and they should do what they love, if they can, but with the recognition that society isn't going to put much value into keeping them productively employed.

    I still endeavor to teach my son everything I can about math and the sciences, because every responsible citizen **needs** to be numerate and have a solid grounding in the sciences. Unfortunately, the vast majority do not and do not see any need to be.