The physicist Steven Weinberg wrote an article in the New York Review of Books a few months ago about “big science” — the kind of science that requires large amounts of money. The two main examples of such science are particle physics and cosmology, the sciences of the very small and the very large. In each case, scientific progress has made the problems to be investigated more difficult and more expensive. One of the stories he tells is how concern over federal spending resulted in the death of the Superconducting Super Collider in the early 90s.
Instead of simply calling for the government to devote more money to particle accelerators and space-based telescopes, however, Weinberg puts spending on big science in the context of overall government spending and taxation.
In the last part of his article, he calls attention to the need for more spending on a number of important priorities (education, infrastructure, drug treatment, patent inspectors, regulation of the financial industry, etc., etc.). Professor Weinberg concludes:
“In fact, many of these other responsibilities of government have been treated worse in the present Congress than science….It seems to me that what is really needed is not more special pleading for one or another particular public good, but for all the people who care about these things to unite in restoring higher and more progressive tax rates, especially on investment income. I am not an economist, but I talk to economists, and I gather that dollar for dollar, government spending stimulates the economy more than tax cuts. It is simply a fallacy to say that we cannot afford increased government spending. But given the anti-tax mania that seems to be gripping the public, views like these are political poison. This is the real crisis, and not just for science.”
The anti-tax mania isn’t gripping the public as a whole, but he makes an excellent point.