James Peebles Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Cosmologist’s Intellectual Journey: Conversations with James E. Peebles, Professor Emeritus of Cosmology, Princeton University; October 12, 2006 by Harry Kreisler

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The Future of Science

If you think about the future of science, we have to train the next generation, [starting with] the lower grades. There is a commitment to doing science to discover truth, but we have to develop the skills there [in the lower grades] so people can go to high school, and then go to college, and then if they choose, get a PhD.

On the other hand, the political currents are calling science into question around [certain] issues, [although] not directly related to what you do. As a scientist, what are your thoughts about that? How do we build the legitimacy of science in those communities where it's become problematic?

I wish I could answer that. I'm sure that a lot of the development of a scientist takes place in public schools, in lower grades. I have no idea how that's best done. Of course, so much of it depends on the home environment. I was so lucky -- although I didn't learn much in the way of formal science until university, I was so lucky in having parents that allowed me to build things. I could make a mess in the backyard and they didn't care.

I have taught all my life but I must say, I hold in awe those teachers in public schools for the much deeper challenge they have. After all, when I teach I'm talking to the choir. If the class is a little unruly I lower my voice and they all settle down.

[laughs]

It's just so different. But of course, once we've got these people in university, then indeed, there are things that can be done and must be done to keep them on the track to doing great things. One of the most important, certainly, is a little bit of support for interesting new research that will inspire them perhaps to continue doing research after education or perhaps to go into something different but apply their skills.

Not very expensive, it's a fraction of the budget of this country to keep research going. It's being squeezed these days for small groups. The National Science Foundation is a major source of support. It is being terribly squeezed so that many scientists who are doing small science -- but that's the backbone -- the small science groups that are teaching small groups of students to go out and do wonderful new things are being squeezed to the point that many are closing down. The National Science Foundation is running out of money for small groups that are at the very basis for education.

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