Well, it goes back to the war and post-war era when physicists like that (including "truly theoretical" ones) have created the first nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants etc. The political establishment – including the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, respectively – concluded that it could be a rather good idea for a nation to pay theoretical physicists – some very practical things may come out of it. Whether this assumption is still true may be debated.
If you want me to be more historically accurate, the Manhattan Project was actually masterminded not by the Department of Defense but by a predecessor of the Department of Energy. This predecessor was established in 1942 and Jimmy Carter reshaped it to the Department of Energy in 1977.
Days ago, I was shown a letter
I actually know most of the signatories in person – they include my PhD adviser, the later de facto boss, lots of colleagues from several institutions and dozens of physicists I have interacted at various places. Plus additional dozens whose papers I am familiar with etc.
About one-half of the signatories may be classified as string theorists – they're those whom I know best – but I do believe that the others, probably phenomenologists, are mostly physicists who would give string theory a "positive sign", to put it somewhat carefully, and I could name a few examples of pro-string phenomenologists on the list. This isn't a universal rule, however. For example, Lawrence Krauss who has been one of the obnoxious jerks when it comes to string theory is signed as well.
I have several comments about this topic. Let me try to be brief and write them as bullets.
OK, here we go:
- A civilized society does provide pure theorists – especially high-energy theoretical physicists – with some sufficient support because the fundamental laws of physics represent a key part of the genuine culture of our epoch, if I borrow Feynman's words. And the people researching it seriously probably need to make it for their living (mostly) and therefore their lost income needs to be compensated.
- The speedy decrease of the DOE funding shows that the love of the Democratic Party – and Barack Obama and his folks – for genuine science surely isn't as hot as many left-wing political activists and demagogues loved to suggest. Don't forget that the (later abandoned) SSC and the (happily living) LHC collider were politically masterminded by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, respectively. Bill Clinton oversaw the death of the SSC and Barack Obama supervised a 30% cut of DOE funding for theorists. Stop fooling yourself: left-wing politicians and activists mostly prefer a pseudoscience that may be easily corrupted and politically abused – e.g. the climate hysteria – over genuine science such as particle physics.
- I disagree with the claim in the letter about the "public's continued fascination with particle physics, cosmology, and gravity". In the recent decade or so, the public in the U.S. and elsewhere was heavily brainwashed and largely turned into a mob that hates theoretical physics. I am confident that the enthusiasm of the public for particle physics decreased by much more than 30% in the recent decade. None of the signatories under the letter has helped my noble efforts to liquidate stinky hostile demagogic fascist anti-science filth such as the Mr Šmoit I and II – and the decrease of the funding is partly an unavoidable consequence of this laziness and cowardliness of yours.
- I am far from certain that DOE continues to be a natural sponsor of theoretical physicists. It seems more sensible to me that a big majority of theoretical physics should receive funding that is politically linked to pure research agencies and education, not to "practical" departments such as the DOE.
So the department of physics at Harvard – and it's surely the same elsewhere – has special secretaries (without any physics degrees) who have become experts in writing grant applications like that. They "know" what turns an application to a winner. In my opinion, this arrangement that became standard shows that the money flows don't have too much to do with the physics content and meritocracy.
It seems more natural to me to assume that most theoretical physicists should be funded as university scholars – also hard-working or occasional teachers – by default. Some of them are very good and stimulating teachers, others aren't, and there can be some compensation of their pedagogical weakness by their research credentials. And very exceptional theorists may get one of the extra prizes – such as the Breakthrough Prize – or other purely scientific grants.
As far as I understand, America's department of education only takes care of three minor colleges – the rest is about the basic schools and high schools. It's different in Czechia and elsewhere – the ministry of education obviously has a lot to say about the universities and indirectly research, too. Maybe some reorganization of the U.S. department of education would be desirable and some of the money paid by DOE should simply be paid through DOED.
Again, if I were in charge of the DOE, I wouldn't allow such a decrease of the funding because such a change surely does indicate that the DOE officials' relationship to HEP theory is "mostly negative". But as an independent observer, I do think that the DOE funding for theoretical physicists is mostly an anachronism. The theorists aren't really developing any new power plants or similar practical things. We can't observe characteristic processes at the string scale so we can't obviously build useful gadgets using them, either. (Well, at least not those based on the cutting-edge particle physics – fusion is probably the only particle-physics-based exception but it's highly isolated from hep-th and hep-ph archives. On Tuesday, the Prague ex-mayor JK told me that he's working on physical mechanisms to dramatically speed up the process to produce fossil fuels from organic junk under high pressures, good luck to him. But such projects are obviously even further than fusion from the research that the signatories want to be funded.)
So while I would wish the funding for theoretical particle physicists to go up, not down, it could make sense that the money comes from other places than DOE. In fact, I believe that theoretical physicists – including most of the signatories in this letter – must have written lots of bullšit to the DOE to justify the DOE grants in recent decades. It seems unavoidable to me that most of them wrote that their research on string theory is ultimately important for the energy industry or energy independence of the U.S. and similar things – which are, as far as I can say, rubbish.
The funding flows should be such that the applications may be as honest and authentic as possible. It should be appreciated – and considered legitimate – that the theorists' goals are purely theoretical, whether the average citizens understand the value of pure research or not. I am confident that even when this basic point is admitted, there will be lots of sources eager to provide the theorists with lots of support. It won't necessarily be the "bulk of the public" but it doesn't have to be. The bulk of the public isn't the only group that owns the bulk of the money.
I can't avoid mentioning one story from Feynman's Cargo Cult Science commencement speech at Caltech. He talked about the importance of the utter scientific integrity in science and he got to funding issues closely related to the topic of this blog post, too.
For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing—and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.Later, he also says that a scientist hired as a government adviser should emphasize his conclusion that it's better to drill in another state – if he's led to this conclusion. Otherwise he's not a scientific adviser – he's being abused.
One example of the principle is this: If you’ve made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. [...]
I do think that all these principles defended by Feynman are true and important – it's a matter of the scientist's morality to be sure that astronomers or string theorists aren't inventing "practical applications" of their research. And scientists shouldn't be reduced to cherry-picked tools who just confirm what the politicians want to hear. I am afraid that the real-world scientists (surely primarily corrupt pseudoscientists such as the climate alarmists but not only they) were violating all these Feynman's ethical rules increasingly frequently in recent decades.
And this realization gives me some balance – a reason to think that some of the cuts may have been well-deserved.