30 Years (G)On(e)

Ever since I got my Ph.D., nigh onto 30 years ago, I have been engaged in what’s known as “public good” science. Research and education funded by taxpayers, the results of which were freely available to taxpayers. Work that has provided the essential foundation for most of the “miracles” of the modern era, from ampicillin to YouTube.

I was told, young and up front, that public good science was no way to get rich. But as a young man with no money, social skills, or connections to speak of, I saw the academic life as a way to do something useful, and perhaps to gain enough respectability in society to actually be left alone to do it. It was a calling, and I believed in it.

I was still in graduate school when I first started to doubt. When it dawned on me that I’d been born too late, the academic jobs I’d dreamed about had been filled up and there was a whole mob of us fighting for what was left. When I looked around me, and saw that all of my grad school “peers” were children of prosperity, with whom I had nothing in common but the Petri dishes in the lab.

When I first started out in my career, we held our professional meetings in university student unions, and slept in dormitory rooms with rickety beds. Dedication, I fantasized.

When some of us started insisting on staying in hotels instead of the dorms, I worried.

When the meetings themselves started being held in hotels and conference centers instead of the student unions, I worried some more. OK, it’s nice to sleep in a room that won’t wake you at 3 AM with the whine of a toilet being flushed on the 10th floor, and in a bed that won’t leave you bent double with back spasms in the morning. But that was what “dedication” was all about. Nothing good can come of this posh stuff.

The children of prosperity had other ideas. Especially as their peers in other walks of life were making far more than they. My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends. So they became comfortable.

And as they became more comfortable, they became more noticeable. And it became more noticeable that what they were saying about the world might be true, but wasn’t necessarily friendly.

They proclaimed that God did not specially create humanity – while treating Darwin as if he did.

They proclaimed that humans caused global warming, and that warming is a clear and present danger to humanity – while driving to work (see “Porsche”, supra).

They proclaimed that private support for research threatened the whole research enterprise, by locking information up with patents and contracts – but willingly accepted corporate funding when the alternative, due to the increasing unwillingness of a dubious public to provide more taxpayer monies, was to close laboratories and fire people.

Today (29 December 2009), in “Paradise”, the President of the University of Hawai‘i unilaterally imposed a 6.7% cut in salary on its faculty, citing financial emergency and contractural impasse as reasons to abrogate the “evergreen” clause in the contract that expired last June.

The faculty union, theoretically, has options, including seeking a court injunction blocking the University’s action, or calling for a strike.

But the union has to consider, in its deliberations, the apparently-universal public response to the UH President’s action:

“Damned right and it’s about time. Screw the greedy fat bastards!”

The public is dead wrong.

And perfectly right.

And thirty years is a heap of ashes in my stomach.


I took the photos below on the University of Hawaii campus. OC said he had something to do in his lab that would take about 20 minutes. I took my camera and disappeared for 45 minutes. Even so, I returned too early. I was unsurprised to find him still working. His concept of “20 minutes” and mine vary greatly.

I entered his lab full of enthusiasm over the exotic plants I’d found and I began chattering about the glorious orchid trees. OC said, “You mean the one just out the door and to the left?” I agreed. He informed me that I’d been snapping photos of Tulip trees. African Tulip Trees.

Okay. I didn’t argue with him. He’s the botanist, right? (Keep in mind he also doesn’t know how to tell time.)

I brought the photos home, downloaded them, trimmed them, named them and saved them — only to be corrected later and told that they are not African Tulip Trees, but are instead . . .

. . . Hong Kong Orchid Trees.

This is a Hong Kong Orchid Tree.

This is a Hong Kong Orchid.

Sorry it’s a bit blurry, the wind was blowing and the dang thing wouldn’t stay still — not even when I took my umbrella to it! Just the same, I thought those of you shivering in the snow and ice while dreaming fondly of Spring might like a bouquet of flowers.