Inside Story: Strange days, weird science

Peter Horner, editor
peter.horner@mail.informs.org

Readers of a certain age with a certain nerd quotient might recall the 1985 film “Weird Science” about a couple of teenage boys who “design their ideal woman on a computer, and a freak electrical accident brings her to life in the form of lovely, superhuman Lisa” (played by 1980s heartthrob Kelly LeBrock).

Yeah, I know, dumb concept, but hey, it’s Hollywood. The film made a lot of money, and that’s all that matters.

For some weird reason, that 32-year-old sophomoric film keeps crossing my mind during these strange days since the 2016 presidential election. Anyone who pays any attention to the news – real or fake, it doesn’t matter – knows that when it comes to science, such as the environment, climate change and what’s causing it, there’s something weird going on. The question is, who’s science are you going to believe? For example, is global warming a “hoax,” something “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” or is it a natural phenomenon accelerated by man-made CO2 emissions?

I think we can all agree that “alternative facts” have no place in basic science and make no sense in the natural world. E = mc2 holds true throughout time and space. Yet the scientific community, known for the “scientific method” and its painstaking efforts to get to the truth of how the natural world works through “systematic observation, measurement and experiment, and the formulation, testing and modification of hypothesis” (Oxford Dictionary), is under siege from certain people in high places. Politics, of course, play a role, but one could also make the case that some research is unnecessary and not particularly useful or applicable, and when that research receives funding from the federal government, budgeting issues ensue.

And so it begins. According to ScienceNews, the administration’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget calls for significant cuts to the following agencies: National Science Foundation (11 percent cut), Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Science & Technology (37 percent), Department of Energy’s Office of Science (16 percent), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (17 percent) and the National Institutes of Health (22 percent). And that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg.

It’s important to remember that the president’s proposed 2018 budget is not the final budget, and many changes will no doubt be made between now and then. It’s also true that many dedicated researchers and scientists are doing great work that benefits society in countless ways, from healthcare, manufacturing and defense to energy and transportation.

In this issue’s “President’s Desk” column, Brian Denton describes proposed cuts to scientific funding as an important “wake-up call” for the operations research/analytics community, noting that, “there is a longstanding history of challenges in making the connection between basic science and societal impact.” Denton urges INFORMS members to respond to the challenge by taking action in a constructive manner. For more, see page 8. Meanwhile, in a related “Forum” piece, Laura Albert, INFORMS Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Outreach, outlines opportunities for O.R. at the National Science Foundation (page 10).

Trust me, there’s nothing strange or weird about either of their articles. Just the (real) facts.