Response (canned) and reply to an open letter about science funding

In response to my open letter (emailed directly to my congressional representatives), Pat Toomey replied with this, seemingly, canned response:


Dear Steven,

Thank you for contacting me about scientific research funding. I appreciate hearing from you.

I value your input on scientific research funding and the role it plays in driving innovation and economic competitiveness. I also understand your support for increased federal funding for this issue. That said, our nation is facing a $1 trillion deficit, and the President’s latest budget proposal continues this unsustainable path for years to come. All areas of government spending must be carefully examined so that we can put our nation on a path toward fiscal solvency. Inevitably, tough choices will have to be made, and making such choices is something that I have promised to the people of Pennsylvania.

Now that the Fiscal Year 2013 budget process is completed, please be assured that I will keep your views about federal funding for basic scientific research in mind. Your input is helpful as Congress begins focusing on the Fiscal Year 2014 budget and how we can correct our fiscal path, help foster job creation, and improve the economy for all Americans.

Thank you again for your correspondence. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if I can be of assistance.



Pat Toomey
U.S. Senator, Pennsylvania



My reply, unedited:



Some math:
$1 trillion deficit = $1000 billion.
Total requested funding of 3 major science agencies for FY 2013 (NIH, NSF, NASA) = approximately $56 billion
56/1000 = Science funding accounts for 5.6% of the total deficit.
Let’s be austere and cut 50% of this spending, or a total of 2.8% of the deficit! We’ve saved ourselves 28 billion dollars!
Of course, as a result, half the science labs in the US fold in the coming years. Maybe some of the top scientists may relocate to the UK, China, or Germany, where governments are investing in science, resulting in the direct loss of jobs in the US (not just the scientists, but their labs, techs, grad students, etc.); but maybe not. Maybe they just stop contributing to science.
Science which promotes economic growth at a faster rate than the influx of labor and capital. Science which promotes economic growth at a faster rate not for the US any longer but for its global competitors. And that $28 billion we saved by slicing basic science research? That money would have been made up, by some estimates, twice over.

Scientific funding creates good jobs. Families USA has estimated that each $1 billion of NIH research grant funding creates more than 15,000 jobs with an average wage of $52,000 a year and generates $2.21 billion of new business activity.


See, this is not a simple economic equation. It requires foresight, smart investment. Consider a family struggling to pay for its lifestyle, and incurring massive debt. Don’t buy the fanciest, most expensive alarm system money can buy, but slash out the money Mom and Dad need to pay for gas to get to work, or the kids need to get to school. There will be nothing left to protect.
Oh, and that math at the top of this letter – slicing education money is a good way to ensure no one catches up with your bogus arguments. Of course, that’s a separate issue.

An open letter in support of science funding

I sent the letter below to all of my congressional representatives via this link:

Please consider doing the same as our political leaders decide what to do as we approach the fiscal cliff.


To whom it may concern:

Slicing budgets for basic science stymies all societal growth. Growth in
major sectors of the economy will suffer irreparable damage as a result of
cutting funding for basic science research.

Think the US can compete on the world stage without world class scientists
creating the cutting edge? Think you will inspire a generation of young
people to engage with science as a solution to society’s problems if they
see research institutions fail and progress stagnate? Think we can solve
the problems that haunt us today without insights and development from

Think again. Want to cite that study on [green jobs; benefits of preschool
education; effects of a crumbling infrastructure]? Sorry, results pending;
scientists solving big problems await funding.

I, and my colleagues from the science community, urge you to think
responsibly and about the future as we approach the fiscal cliff. I
understand that cuts must be made, but do not cut the future to save the

Thank you for your time.


Steven M. Weisberg

Magical Realism

The rules of perception are susceptible to exploitation. Psychologists have known for decades that the “reality” of the world does not map directly onto the reality that is perceived. Often, this mismatch is unintentional (like the feeling of moving backward when seated in a stationary car next to a car that is moving forward). These quirks of perception, some of which are adaptive to help us tune out irrelevant information, can be manipulated. Not that we always mind.

Magic plays with our (mis)perception of the world, in a way that is both artful and entertaining. But for Teller, of the magic duo Penn and Teller, magic serves as a form of science experiment. What variables can be tweaked to produce the desired effect? The stage as psychology lab metaphor is one he exploits in an article for Smithsonian Magazine. And, despite his naivete about the psychology jargon, the metaphor is apt. Neuroscientists are only just discovering the principles of and brain regions that support what magicians have known for years, claims Teller. Psychologists demonstrate change blindness (the error in detecting a phenomenon that changes in front of your face but outside your awareness); magicians employ misdirection. Psychologists research cognitive dissonance (people invent reasons for claims to bring their mental states in line with reality); Teller explains the craftiness of allowing audience members to inspect “magical” instruments.

A recent piece in Esquire covers some of Teller’s more well-known tricks as well as a recent scandal of trick-stealing in which he has become embroiled. The remarkable thing about Teller’s tricks is their starkness. The centerpiece of the article is a trick called “Shadows” in which a shadow of a rose is sliced by a shadow of a knife. In front of the shadows is a real rose, which is sliced as if by the same stroke as the shadow. The trick is so stripped-down, so naked that one gets the sense that how the trick is done must be in plain sight, if only one knew what to look for.

The real “tricks” of magic, although perhaps undetectable, usually are noticeable as tricks. That flash of light, the magician’s patter, the literal smoke and mirrors – these reveal themselves to be the misdirection that they are, even if we can’t prove it with our own visual evidence. From a psychologists’ standpoint, Teller’s tricks are astounding because they forego the flashiness and force the audience to confront what they believe compared to what they perceive.

The other tricks covered in the article, and the author’s brilliant take on the scandal revealed at the end of the article, point out something else about Teller’s approach to magic which served, for me, to change the way I define what is magical. In perception research, theorists talk about bottom-up versus top-down processes. Bottom-up information, the raw sensory information out there in the world, grabs attention in the form of loud noises and flashes of light. Top-down information, the brain’s resources like memory or context, guides perception through previous experience or the exertion of will. Magic can play with either of these two processes, and the way they interact. Magicians like Teller, who expand the repertoire of human tendencies they exploit (I won’t spoil the article by divulging which), can help us achieve greater conscious access to our own limitations in perceiving the world.