Why Fund Science?  Why Fund Prof. Newberg's Milky Way Research?

Why Fund Science? Why Fund Professor Newberg's Milky Way Research?

November 20, 2015

"Why Should We Fund This?" is a frequent question when I give public talks. It is not a question I asked myself when I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley, or took a postdoc job at Fermilab. But now that I am the head of a research group, it is THE question. The most important question faculty candidates are asked in the interview is: “Who will fund your research?” The answer to that question will determine whether you get the job, and after you land the job it will determine whether you will be able to continue making important discoveries in your field. It will determine whether I have to tell my postdoc I can no longer support him, and whether I can say “yes” to some of those bright smiling young faces that walk through my door looking for an internship and a chance to find out what it means to push the frontiers of knowledge.

I am an astronomer. The research that I do is basic research. I do not have a plan in place for how this is going to cure cancer, make your computers run faster, or create spinoff businesses that employ our citizens. Currently, I am trying to figure out how the Milky Way galaxy works. Astronomers have this idea that 80% of the stuff in the Universe is made up of some as-yet-to-be discovered particle referred to as “dark matter.” This huge mass is what holds our galaxy together gravitationally. We see spiral arms in galaxies, but we don’t know why they started or how long they will last. The list of what we don’t know about our home galaxy would surprise you. I want to find out.

But then there is the question of cost and who will pay, and whether my research should be supported by federal tax dollars. There are at least six reasons to care about funding for basic research, like mine:

(1) Knowing about the Universe we live in changes us as people. It is astounding to me that my great grandmother lived most of her life not knowing we lived in a galaxy. Can you imagine in this modern age not knowing that the Earth goes around the Sun? This is similar to the reason that some of our civilization’s wealth should be spent on the arts. We feel better, we are healthier, when our homes, schools and workplaces are inviting. We are moved when artists reach us with their music, poetry, dance, artwork, writing, and theater. It is the same with science. Some part of being human (somewhere near the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs) includes the need to know about the Universe we live in, and ask "Why?" Intellectual curiosity is the reason that scientists become scientists.

I am personally proud of my small role in the discovery that the Universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate (dark energy); of helping to build the highly successful Sloan Digital Sky Survey project which cataloged hundreds of millions of astronomical objects observed in a quarter of the whole sky; of a larger role in discovering that the outer Milky Way is full of stars that are pulled out of smaller galaxies as they fell into our galaxy; and of letting the world know that they live in a galaxy with a rippled disk. Someday I hope to be able to tell you where the dark matter is located in the Milky Way, which will make it easier for us to figure out what it is and where we should look to detect it.

(2) In the very long term, what we learn might be important. Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel, who was actually studying materials that absorb one color of light but give off another color. He had no idea about atomic nuclei (which weren’t discovered until 1911), and his research on the optical properties of materials was actually not at all related to radioactivity. Fifty years of research by many people (and several Nobel Prizes later) the first fission nuclear reactor was made in 1942 using uranium fuel. By 2012, nuclear reactors produced 10.9% of electricity in the world. Radioactive elements are also used in x-ray imaging, medical diagnostics and treatments, monitoring of industrial processes, and smoke detectors. Henri Becquerel died in 1908 having seen none of these important practical uses of his research.

Astronomy in particular gives us a chance to explore what happens in environments that are more extreme in temperature, density, size, composition, and age than anything we can create on Earth. Fusion was discovered in 1920 as the energy source that powers the Sun, and explained how the Sun could live for 4 billion years, which is the age of the rocks on Earth. In fusion, energy is generated from binding smaller particles together to make larger particles. This is the opposite of what happens in radioactivity and fission, where energy is generated from splitting particles apart into smaller particles. Someday fusion may give us a new energy source that does not produce radioactive waste like the current fission-based nuclear reactors. In the past hundred years of basic and applied research there has been great progress towards that but a commercially viable process has not yet materialized.

In my own case, I am trying to find out how dark matter is distributed in the Milky Way galaxy, which will help us to know what the dark matter is. This is important because dark matter is thought to be five times more prevalent in the Universe than the matter you and I are made out of. Who knows what physics we will learn from dark matter, and what technology that physics will eventually result in. Like Becquerel and the large number of scientists that developed the field of nuclear physics in the decades after his important discovery, I am just trying to understand how things work.

(3) There will be scientists to call on when there’s a problem. When an asteroid is coming towards the Earth, who you gonna call? In fact, who told you it was coming in the first place? The world needs someone to call when the unexpected happens, and to notice the things that might be coming in the future so we have a chance to change our course or prepare.

Scientists noticed the ozone hole, discovered that chlorofluorocarbons were causing destruction of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere, and found chemical substitutes for the industrial applications of this chemical, in time to save our Earth from the human and ecological disaster that would have resulted from too much ultraviolet light from the Sun. But it was not achieved by scientists alone. Politicians put together an international agreement in which they agreed to phase out the use of the ozone-depleting chemicals (the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer), and then enforced that agreement in their own countries. I hope the world will respond similarly to the threat of global climate change.

Astronomers study everything we can see in the sky because we are curious. By doing this, we are here to identify potential threats and alleviate potential fears about others. Astronomers study the Sun including solar flares that can knock out satellites and electrical grids. On the other hand we know we can expect our Sun to remain pretty much as it is for billions of years into the future so there is no immediate need to relocate. Some astronomers think dark matter could be responsible for disturbing the Oort cloud that surrounds our solar system and sending the comet(s) that killed the dinosaurs. If this is borne out by future research, we could predict the next global disaster millions of years in advance.

We are called for less dramatic problems as well. I am called every time someone in the local region thinks they found a meteorite, and sometimes when people are kept up late with an unexplained light in the sky. I don’t know all of the answers, but I can help people use triangulation to find the distance to the light sources, or identify potential explanations for unusual-looking phenomena. Sometimes hobbyists or startup companies call the Physics Department with simple physics questions that they need explained. I can answer these calls because I have been trained and work as a scientist; I believe it is part of my duty as a scientist who is supported by taxpayers to spend a small fraction of my time answering these questions.

(4) Spinoff technologies that we did not expect can change our lives. When I was a postdoc at Fermilab, I worked on the third website in the world. The web was created by a particle physicist who was trying to solve a real-world problem: "How can a community of physicists all over the world work together to create and document code for processing particle physics data?” To make the documentation accessible all over the world, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. He had no idea how it would affect all of our everyday lives. Big technological advances can be made by smart people trying to solve impossible problems, and that technology can then be used in unanticipated ways. Can you imagine the world without web pages?

Sometimes it is precisely because our research has no immediate military or commercial value that it is important. For example, Jim Gray of Microsoft research used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to develop methods for organizing and accessing databases because we had an enormous amount of complex data that we would let him use for free, and he did not have to worry about confidentiality issues. He could share the data with anyone, and present the results to anyone. Astronomers worked with him to explain what kinds of operations we needed to do, and tested his algorithms. In this way he studied real-world problems with applications in medicine and national security, without being slowed down by safety protocols.

When I worked on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, we were early adopters of object-oriented databases, and some of the astronomers on our team were pioneers in organizing and analyzing big data. We also worked with the suppliers of our CCD cameras to help them perfect the process of making very large chips that were free of defects. It is common for scientists, who are always trying to push the envelope, to work with their suppliers to improve the products that are on the cutting edge. Scientists often put in the money and effort before the products become cost effective. This helps to spur on industry, even if the scientists themselves are using the database, crystal, electronics, or whatever, for what appears to be an esoteric reason.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey was on the leading edge of learning to handle big datasets. What I found is that with hundreds of millions of stars available, simple galaxy models with two or three variable parameters are not sufficient to describe the complexity of the enormous dataset. But fitting models with large numbers of parameters requires *really* big computing power, and is a computer science research project of its own. To solve my problem, my computer science colleagues built what has become a 0.5 PetaFLOPS volunteer supercomputer called MilkyWay@home. MilkyWay@home is a network of 20,000 people who volunteer the time they are not using on 30,000 computers all over the world.

I never expected that MilkyWay@home would also be used to generate cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is an electronic currency that is generated, or “mined,” by a “proof-of-work” algorithm, where running calculations on your computer is the work. As it turns out, we are the leading manufacturer of the Gridcoin cryptocurrency, which uses our credits for crunching through science problems as the proof of work.

(5) We educate the next generation. As a university faculty member I am paid to teach astronomy and physics, but I also have about ten students working with me on research at any given time. Some of these students go on to graduate school or academic careers, but many also use the technical training and real-world work experience they get working on my computer systems and databases to get great jobs at Google, Goldman-Sachs, AMD and many other companies. While they are working with me, they are also helping to push the boundaries of our knowledge – to discover things that I can then teach in my courses. Sometimes magazines used to educate elementary school children have reported on my research, to give the kids something interesting to read. Without us, what would they put in those textbooks?

But our impact on the education of youth goes far beyond our duties as university faculty. For example, I have worked in inner cities where we used the wonder of astronomy to get middle school kids interested in science and math. I learned that these students are bright and interested, have surprisingly bad hand-eye coordination, and were never told that there are wires in the wall that connect the light switches to the overhead lights. In addition to learning about kinetic, potential, mechanical, and electrical energy through hands-on activities, they learned there were crazy people like me who liked math and science so much they stayed in school for nine years after high school to study it. It would be impossible to pay someone of my qualifications to take a job in an inner city middle school. But I do this as a volunteer, for my own curiosity, and sometimes because the National Science Foundation requires and encourages me to make a difference in the lives of the taxpayers who are funding my research.

I also give public lectures, run K-12 teacher training workshops, answer questions kids send me in email, judge science fairs, support our department’s weekly public observing program, make videos for children and adults on YouTube, mentor high school students, visit schools, and answer calls from and give interviews for print, radio, TV, and on-line press. I have given talks in high school astronomy clubs to kids who are trying to understand what college and careers are, and been interviewed by Glamour magazine for the same purpose. I communicate with the MilkyWay@home volunteers and the general public through web pages, facebook, twitter, instagram and reddit. I also serve as the President of the Board of the Dudley Observatory, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and outreach programs designed to bring the wonders of science, particularly astronomy, to people from all walks of life. I directly reach thousands of people with my education and outreach activities, and the organizations which I run reach an order of magnitude beyond that. In addition, my graduate and undergraduate research students do enormous outreach with our public observing program and also organize hands-on experiments in schools.

(6) It promotes international peace and understanding. When I travel for scientific conferences, I meet with my local counterparts in countries all over the world. I do not just see the tourist attractions; I meet with real locals who know exactly what is going on in their countries. I led an international collaboration with a Chinese telescope project, and my group has helped to train a generation of Chinese Galactic astronomers. Science (particularly collaborations on subjects that are not of immediate commercial or military use) can be important in maintaining peaceful contact between nations. If you want to know what the conditions are like in other countries, ask a scientist.

In recent years we have seen the support for science, and in particular basic research like astronomy, erode in the United States. While in previous decades scientists immigrated to the US in large numbers, we are now starting to see that opportunities for bright inquisitive minds are better in other countries. Funding for basic research has remained flat or falling slightly in buying power. As the population grows, this means that more scientists are competing for the same dollars, which means the fraction of proposals that are funded is falling. Since more scientists have good ideas than there are dollars to spend on them, they keep resubmitting the previously unfunded proposals, which pushes the funding rate even lower. The funding rate for NSF astronomy proposals is now 13%, and it is similarly low in other areas of basic research. This funding rate is low enough that our way of doing science is no longer working.

The federal budget grows with the population, so the fraction of the federal budget spent on science indicates the national priority that is placed on this activity. The first figure below shows that the priority placed on research and development has been steadily dropping since the Apollo missions of the 1960’s. The situation for basic research is somewhat worse than that, because in recent years research dollars have preferentially gone towards health, technology transfer, energy and the environment. These areas have the highest chance of short term effect on the lives of our citizens. The result has been a deeper cut for basic research. The second figure shows the fraction of astronomy proposals funded by the US national science foundation. The rate fell to 13% in 2015.

US R&D Budget US R&D Budget

Starting in January 2016, I will be one of those researchers who has lost all federal funding for my research. Currently, I am running a crowd funding campaign to support my students and postdoc through the next year. And yes, I am still hoping that my research will receive federal funding in the near future. But the current funding rates are not encouraging.

I am writing this because I posted a note on facebook announcing that there was $4700 left to go to meet our challenge grant. And one person replied, “How many hungry people can we feed with $4700?” This comment reminds me a little of my mother, in the 1970’s, telling me to eat my vegetables. “Think of all of the starving people in China,” she said. I have been to China, and most of the scientists my age were in fact hungry as children. Grandparents were starving themselves so their grandchildren could eat, and children were being sent to the country where they had a better chance of finding food. They all have a family member or loved one who died. But their condition did not depend in any way on whether I ate my vegetables or not.

In the United States, we have enormous wealth. Even with the economic progress China has made in recent decades, my Chinese colleagues think my house is like a village. There is no good reason for people in any technologically advanced country to remain hungry. This is not true in poorer, “third world” countries where poverty is ubiquitous and extreme. But let us be clear about the source of our enormous wealth. Our wealth comes from technological advances, most of which have their early beginnings in basic research.

Prof. Heidi Jo Newberg