Saturday, March 28, 2009

Good budget news, for once

On March 23 Pres Obama started to make good on his commitment to supporting science. It's supporting neutrino science, which has nothing to do with the search for the Higgs boson, but some of it can go towards infrastructure improvements at Fermilab, which got $34.9 million. Fermilab's neighbor, Argonne National Lab, will get $13.1 million.

Remember in our film when John Conway and Robin Erbacher are sitting in a restaurant, talking about the budget cut they just experienced? (If you only saw the PBS version, alas, this scene had to be cut for brevity). They were lamenting the fact that the DOE (under the Bush administration) didn't really seem to support them, either financially, or (strange to say it), spiritually or philosophically. The administration tried to establish performance measures, a kind of business-model approach to science that is fundamentally at odds with the type of big-picture research going on in the search for these kinds of answers. In a strange way, it's as if a CEO approached an artist and said "OK, let's quantify how you go about painting masterpieces. How many masterpiece ideas will you be generating per week? How many brushstrokes per masterpiece? What is your brown-to-red ratio when it comes to creating the mood 'somber'? I'd like to have your answers in an excel spreadsheet by tomorrow morning." The CEO, on a fundamental level, doesn't "get it."

Not that I have anything against CEOs or am implying that they don't understand the more subtle aspects of life. It's just that, in a strange way, I think artists and scientists find themselves in similar situations: in passionate pursuit of something that people with the money they need don't often understand (something my co-director Monica has said for years). On our Netflix page, there are several reviews. We've got a 3.6 star average rating (up from 3.5!), which I'm pretty pleased with. Most of the viewers who took time to write something were pretty positive, but there are some real gripers out there who were not pleased with the film at all. Some of them seemed to react quite negatively to scenes such as the one I described above, where John and Robin were sitting in the restaurant, opening up about their feelings, calling them naive or petty, accusing them of whining and having myopia about the real world. I certainly wouldn't argue with any critics; they are certainly entitled to their perspective. However, I would say that we give scientists precious little space for personal feelings. Much of it undoubtedly has to do with the fact that they are spending lots of public money on things most of us don't understand.

Did you see the movie "Big Night?" It's about a small Italian restaurant in New Jersey run by a couple of brothers. One brother is an exacting chef and the other is the manager. The chef (another iconoclastic misunderstood genius) chafes when clunky regulars come in and ask for a meatball with their spaghetti, or want pasta AND risoto. Whom do you identify with, the chef or the customer? No one likes to be sneered at as a rube. But everyone can relate to the feeling of "they just don't GET it!", whether it be trying to simplify a procedure at work under a dense boss, trying to appeal to a flat-voiced agent at the city auto permit desk, or a kid trying to explain to a shrugging parent why wearing teddy-bear sweaters might have been fine at age 12 but is not an option on the first day of high school.

So, I guess my point here is that finally, finally, Fermilab (and Argonne, and Sandia labs, and Los Alamos, and SLAC, and Brookhaven, and...) can feel like their boss "gets it." They know that meatballs are an American invention. That using email will be faster, better, and cheaper than typing and mailing. That paying for all three tickets NOW instead of coming back three consecutive Tuesdays will be faster and better for everyone. And that, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, even though it's perfectly good, and that years ago parents wore the same sweater five years in a row, and that people in Africa would be thrilled to have a quality sweater like that, spending a few bucks on a new sweater now will pay dividends for years to come in terms of mental health (and those people in Africa can actually get this quality teddy bear sweater ... after it has been donated to the thrift store!)

I can almost feel the pulse rate of scientists across America starting to slow a bit. Relax? Not quite yet. But anyway, shouldn't we let them fret and complain a little like the rest of us? That was a big thrust of our film --- to show that they're just like everyone else. They just use some longer words sometimes. OK, and they're not such good dancers. Well, and maybe their jokes aren't necessarily funny to everyone. And...


tickmeister said...

Funding is good, but I fear the check will bounce.

Tickfest is August 7-8. May we reserve a suite for you? Semi-formal dress this year, so don't pack the tux.

Anonymous said...

More good news: Robin and John welcomed Robert Ian Conway Erbacher, the newest independent variable into their lives. He made his debut as a big bouncing baby boy. Congratulations on a successful encounter of biological particles!