by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The problem is that scientific prestige accompanies scientists well outside their fields of expertise. That’s true when they wander into other scientific fields … but the problem is most acute when it comes to the matter of politics. A relatively recent and intensely annoying example of this comes from my alma mater, the University of Texas, which is proud to employ the physicist Steven Weinberg, who was awarded the Nobel prize in 1979. Professor Weinberg is not short of opinions — evangelizing for causes ranging from atheism to Zionism — and is unsurprisingly interested in the question of government funding for scientific research, a subject he explores in his compact essay “The Crisis in Big Science,” recently republished in The Best American Science and Nature Writing of 2013. (Yes, I am a little behind on my reading; I also have 54,000 unread e-mails.) Professor Weinberg’s essay is remarkably simple-minded, though it is admirably modest: Offering a potted history of the Standard Model, he mentions the unification of the weak and electromagnetic forces but not the fact that he is one of the men who did that.
I do not get the impression that Professor Weinberg is the grasping sort, but it is worth noting that the man arguing that we need to spend more money not only on science but on most everything government does — he endorses a general increase in tax rates and an equally general expansion of the state — is a 1 percenter among public dependents. More than that: He was, as of 2012, the ninth most highly paid professor in these United States, annually taking home the equivalent of Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett’s salary plus Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto’s salary. His wife is paid an additional quarter-million a year as a tenured professor at the University of Texas law school (the reputation of which is in dramatic decline of late). Some years ago, an administrator at the University of Texas described Professor Weinberg’s professional responsibilities to me in approximately these words: “He has a Nobel prize; he does what he wants.” The Weinberg household is a very significant net recipient of tax dollars. That being written, he seems to be a very productive man, and UT has spent a great deal more money on much less admirable investments: Mack Brown, who led the Longhorns to mediocrity on the gridiron, was paid approximately ten times what Professor Weinberg is.
Before I go on, I should note that my objection to Professor Weinberg’s essay is the stupidity and crudeness of its argument; I largely agree with his position about funding ambitious science. In fact, it is because I agree with his position on Big Science that the rest of his essay vexes me. His good point is wrapped in a wrongheaded and poisonous generality; it’s like serving an ice-cream sundae in a bowl shaped like Andrew Cuomo’s face.
Just as Austin spends on far less worthy endeavors than physicists, Washington spends on far less worthy projects than the fundamental infrastructure necessary to their work. …