A scientific conference like DAMOP almost always includes a conference banquet (to which people may or may not bring dates), usually the last night of the meeting, where everybody gets together to eat massive quantities of catered food and drink massive amounts of wine supplied by the conference. The quality of these ranges from your standard rubber chicken sort of fare to the multi-course gourmet meal (with a different bottle of wine for each course) provided at a conference I attended in Bordeaux.
DAMOP does all right in the food department, though you’re not going to get real gourmet fare when you’re cooking for a thousand (well, 952 was the announced conference attendance, and not all of those made it to the banquet). They also have an after-dinner speaker every year (listed in the program, just like an invited talk), along with a bunch of awards and announcements. Past speakers have included some interesting travelogues and some funny stories told by and about famous scientists, but for the past few years, they’ve opted for political figures to get the audience all riled up. Last year’s talk was fairly extreme in this regard, but this year’s talk by a program director from the Department of Energy raised the average blood pressure at our table by a good bit.
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The main subject matter wasn’t terribly exciting– she told the story of how the “American Competitiveness Initiative” came about from an National Academy of Science report. It’s a moderately interesting story of political maneuvering, but she didn’t really add much other than bureaucratic jargon to the story that had already been published in the New York Times and elsewhere.
The annoying thing was the peripheral message– she took pains to state several times that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress support science, in a tone that basically came across as chiding us for thinking otherwise. That was annoying by itself, but at the very end of the talk, she specifically warned against taking partisan positions, citing the letter supporting John Kerry that was signed by a couple dozen Nobel laureates as something that made it harder to keep science funding. She said that after that, when she met with administration officials about budget matters, she could see them thinking “Damn scientists…”
Not only does that take an incredible amount of gall to come out and say (accepting government funding does not preclude private political speech), it pretty much gives the lie to her earlier assertions that the administration and the Republican party support science. Even leaving aside the issues raised by their cozying up to creationists and shady industry groups, if you really support science, that support should not be contingent on scientists holding opinions that you agree with. The idea that private political speech by scientists would affect funding decisions is another appalling example of the way the modern Republican party places politics ahead of policy.
So, while it’s nice that they sorta-kinda came around to supporting scientific research (the money involved seems to be mostly a re-shuffling of already existing science funding, rather than a new allocation of funds, making it a kind of zero-sum game in which some sciences gain, while others lose), this initiative doesn’t really change my opinion of anything, and those remarks manage the impressive trick of further lowering my opinion of the party now in power. It also put a damper on what had otherwise been a nice dinner (though some of the other guys at our table were much more outraged than I was). I really would’ve preferred funny stories about famous scientists.