Monday, February 28, 2011

When Scientific Research and Higher Education become just Political Football

A mere two years after the passage of the economic stimulus package by a Democratically-led Congress, the now Republican-controlled House of Representatives have started swinging their budget cutting axe at scientific research and higher education.

One point stood out in the midst of all this "fiscal responsibility" talk:

The House bill does not specify cuts to five of the Office of Science's six programs, namely, basic energy sciences, high-energy physics, nuclear physics, fusion energy sciences, and advanced scientific computing. However, it explicitly whacks funding for the biological and environmental research program from $588 million to $302 million, a 49% reduction that would effectively zero out the program for the remainder of the year. The program supports much of DOE's climate and bioenergy research and in the past has funded much of the federal government's work on decoding the human genome. - Science , 25 February 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6020 pp. 997-998 DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6020.997

Do the terms Big Oil, Creationism/Intelligent Design come to your mind?

In other somewhat related news, tenure rights are being weakened in Louisiana and state legislatures are trying to have greater control over how colleges are run. It is hard not to see that there seems to be some sort of a coordinated assault against academia (presumably since many academics are seen by the Republican right as leftist liberals).

Lawmakers are inserting themselves even more directly into the classroom in South Carolina, where a proposal would require professors to teach a minimum of nine credit hours per semester.

"I think we need to have professors in the classroom and not on sabbatical and out researching and doing things to that effect," State Rep. Murrell G. Smith Jr., a Republican, told the Associated Press.

Are they attempting to turn research universities into trade/vocational schools? Or are they confused about the different roles the educational institutions play? There are research-focused universities and primarily teaching colleges.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Adieu to the Middle Class, and the Rise of Wee Shumin-ism in America

My previous post talked about the protests by faculty and graduate students in Wisconsin over the dismantling of collective-bargaining rights by public worker unions (and of course the worsening academic job market despite soaring tuition and enrollment in US universities).

What is at stake is more than just that, as Paul Krugman and George Lakoff had helpfully pointed out:

For what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy.


The central issue in our political life is not being discussed. At stake is the moral basis of American democracy.

The individual issues are all too real: assaults on unions, public employees, women's rights, immigrants, the environment, health care, voting rights, food safety, pensions, prenatal care, science, public broadcasting, and on and on.

Budget deficits are a ruse, as we've seen in Wisconsin, where the governor turned a surplus into a deficit by providing corporate tax breaks, and then used the deficit as a ploy to break the unions, not just in Wisconsin, but seeking to be the first domino in a nationwide conservative movement.

But I digress. I want to point out a few paragraphs in Lakoff's essay that caught my eye (the parts in italics).

...But deficits are not what really matters to conservatives.

Conservatives really want to change the basis of American life, to make America run according to the conservative moral worldview in all areas of life.

Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don't think government should help its citizens. That is, they don't think citizens should help each other. The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility.

But where does that view of individual responsibility alone come from?

The way to understand the conservative moral system is to consider a strict father family. The father is The Decider, the ultimate moral authority in the family. His authority must not be challenged. His job is to protect the family, to support the family (by winning competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by disciplining them physically when they do wrong. The use of force is necessary and required. Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become moral beings. And only with such discipline will they be able to prosper. And what of people who are not prosperous? They don't have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty. The good people are hence the prosperous people. Helping others takes away their discipline, and hence makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.

The market itself is seen in this way. The slogan, "Let the market decide" assumes the market itself is The Decider. The market is seen as both natural (since it is assumed that people naturally seek their self-interest) and moral (if everyone seeks their own profit, the profit of all will be maximized by the invisible hand). As the ultimate moral authority, there should be no power higher than the market that might go against market values. Thus the government can spend money to protect the market and promote market values, but should not rule over it either through (1) regulation, (2) taxation, (3) unions and worker rights, (4) environmental protection or food safety laws, and (5) tort cases. Moreover, government should not do public service. The market has service industries for that. Thus, it would be wrong for the government to provide health care, education, public broadcasting, public parks, and so on. The very idea of these things is at odds with the conservative moral system. No one should be paying for anyone else. It is individual responsibility in all arenas.

Do they remind you of a particular (wealthy) South-East Asian country's style of governance?

"You die your own business" and "Please, get out of my elite uncaring face".

Saturday, February 19, 2011

March of the Teachers

Protests in Wisconsin

Very appropriate for current faculty candidates. The (always awful) academic job market is getting worse, and many universities nationwide are either instituting hiring freezes or continuing more layoffs. (A proposed bill in Utah goes further - banning tenure.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The brightest star burns out the fastest

One of my undergraduates (let's call him D) sent me an email over the weekend announcing that he will be taking a leave of absence from the university starting this week for the rest of the academic year. Apparently he has trouble coping with the stress of school and the college had recommended that he take a break from campus. D is the best among the undergrads in my lab - meticulous in record-keeping, dedicated, smart and hardworking. He is strong in both understanding the theoretical concepts and a hands-on person with good tactile sensitivity (especially with thin-tissue slicing). Everyone has high hopes on him graduating with honors and continuing to medical school.

Perhaps I should have known. He changed somewhat after coming back from the Christmas/New Year holidays - started growing a goatee, taking unannounced breaks from the lab during critical experiments, and wearing differently. His choice of clothes has somehow switched from light colored T-shirts with jeans to black shirts and pants (with an accompanying trench coat).

In light of the recent events in Arizona, the university has also started a more aggressive approach towards reporting of students, staff or faculty who show critical signs of mental stress to the campus mental health services. I wonder if that office had played a role in him taking a break from class. I hope he gets well soon.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Why read

For the love of books
Letter from Preeti Athavle
05:55 AM Feb 07, 2011

The letter by Chng Hee Kok ("More help for less well-known schools?", Jan 26) was an eye-opener for me. For the first time, I realised how children from low-income families might not be able to visit libraries as their parents might be too busy to bring them.

There are also other children who don't read much. Either they don't know what books to read or their parents don't inculcate the habit in them as they do not consider it important. I'd like to suggest some solutions.

Some local schools have reading programmes (often assisted by parent volunteers) for Primary 1 students who may be lagging behind. Why don't we extend that to higher levels?

We could have a parent volunteer who comes in after school, and reads a chapter or two from a good book (like a Book Reading Club). A good story could ignite interest in some children to actually borrow that book from the library and read. Even if just 10 per cent of the children become willing to read more, it would be worth the time and effort.

I am impressed with the National Library's amazing collection of books and its e-systems that let you renew or search for a book online, for instance.

What is interesting is that in the children's section, you can check the computer for books and authors that have won awards.

For parents and children who don't know which books to read, this provides an easy reference, thereby not restricting the children to Geronimo Stilton, Harry Potter and other such popular books, but also exposing them to the beautiful works of Andrew Clements, Betsy Byars, Cynthia Rylant and many more.

There are parents who think books are a waste of time and their kids should do workbooks instead. But when their child reaches P4/P5, he or she struggles with the harder vocabulary in comprehension passages. Schools could stress to parents from the start that reading books will help their children.

Many a time my son, who is in the Gifted Education Programme, returns from his English exam expressing the desire to read a particular book, his curiosity having been ignited by the comprehension passage which was taken from that book.

Books are our window to the world. They expose us to beautiful writing, historical events, different cultures and much more. But with the growing pervasiveness of TV, computers and video games, children are losing the patience to sit down and read a book. If not cultivated early, a child might never develop this interest.

1. Improve your knowledge,
2. Understand more about life, society and yourself
3. Have Fun,
4. Make your imagination fly,
5. Find new ways to express your ideas,
6. Expand your vocabulary.