Panel bemoans U.S. loss of scientific leadership

From the Washington Post, 29 May 2008

NEW YORK — Some of the nation’s leading scientists, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s top science adviser, [on 28 May 2008] sharply criticized the diminished role of science in the United States and the shortage of federal funding for research, even as science becomes increasingly important to combating problems such as climate change and the global food shortage.

Speaking at a science summit that opens this week’s first World Science Festival, the expert panel of scientists, and audience members, agreed that the United States is losing stature because of a perceived high-level disdain for science.

They cited U.S. officials and others questioning scientific evidence of climate change, the reluctance to federally fund stem cell research, and some U.S. officials casting doubt on evolution as examples that have damaged America’s international standing.

Click here for full article (registration required).

Despite the bleak message of this article, I believe that it is a short-term phenomenon and we are already seeing signs of a turnaround.

My context is Chris Mooney’s challenging 2005 book, The Republican War on Science, which I reviewed favorably (clicking above link get you to my review) but not without some initial reservations about the title. After all, politicians on both sides of the aisle are prone to abuse science if it suits their purpose.

Still, Mooney’s points were well taken. Due to a confluence of political forces, the Republican party during the middle years of the Bush administration was systematically sowing doubt about the value of science. Many Republicans are continuing to take that stance, but I was encouraged to see that their apparent presidential nominee is more respectful of science.

For example, Senator McCain has made it apparent that he accepts the scientific consensus on global warming and intends to move toward more cooperation with other nations to mitigating its impact. Likewise, I don’t see him as pushing the Religious Right’s agenda on Intelligent Design. (Stay tuned for an upcoming book review on that subject.)

He probably will have to continue pandering to his base on stem-cell research, but to me, he represents a sign that the Republicans have figured out that abusing science is no longer going to be a successful political tactic. The Democrats have known that for some time, though some are guilty of overstating the case to the point that an urgent message of warning becomes counter-productively shrill.

Once the rest of the world recognizes that the American political system is treating science with respect again (though the abusers will still be getting more attention than they deserve), the unique American ability to capitalize on new ideas and generate breakthrough technologies will again propel us to the forefront.

The worst of The Republican War on Science and this country’s corresponding disdain for scientific findings seems to be over. We still have a long way to go, and I personally think that electing more Democrats to Congress and electing a Democratic President will speed up the process of restoring the USA to leadership in science and technology.

But I also think the scientific panel’s conclusions reflect the recent past more than the future.

I hope this posting leads to lots of discussion. Please avoid personal attacks and discuss your views of the USA’s future as a leader in science and technology. I plan to stay out of this unless someone attacks me personally. Disagreeing with my views is fair game. I’ll allow this post, my blog postings and my many book reviews to speak for themselves.

21 thoughts on “Panel bemoans U.S. loss of scientific leadership

  1. Fred:

    I agree that this particular scientific panel’s “conclusions” reflect their perception of “the recent past more than the future”. However, I see there being far more to the US’ “loss of scientific leadership”. I see the decline as preceding the “recent past” by a large margin!

    Sure, dispersions upon science by US leadership can affect perception across the world (including here at home). Sure, lack of public funding slows progress. Sure, a ban on certain kinds of research, or, rather, the use of certain materials for certain kinds of research, can at least, on the surface, appear to slow progress (of some kind or other). Unfortunately, I see the real problem as running far deeper than these more superficial issues.

    What of the move away from corporate funded fundamental science research toward public funded research with the advent of the Cold War? Sure, it had some benefits (and I certainly wouldn’t want to see an abolition of institutions such as NASA, and I believe the National Labs have a significant role to play), but now that the Cold War “threat” is gone, it is much more difficult for the federal government to justify as large a public expenditure (even as small as it really is compared to so many other governmental programs). But has the corporate sector taken up the slack? Have they even returned to near prior levels? Hardly!

    After so many years of simply being able to sup at the table of science lain out by government labs (why spend the money when you can get so much for free?) they have become complacently dependent. It’s a corporate form of the “dependence mentality” that the federal government has sewn for decades.

    Besides, corporations have moved from a recognition that science creates the foundation for new products, services, markets, etc.; to a belief that all such comes through engineering and technology. After all, that’s what they have been engaged in almost exclusively for oh these many decades. The problem is they (and I would say the majority of the US people) have lost sight of the fact that engineering and technology sup at the table of science, and unless one invests in the fundamental science the table will not be so readily stocked in the future.

    A parallel, and possibly dependent, issue is the perception that Ph.D.’s belong in academia, and not the corporate environment. Look at how issues of “oversupply” of Ph.D.’s is framed: It’s almost invariably framed in terms of how many Ph.D.’s are being produced relative to academic positions. After all, isn’t that the sole place for Ph.D.’s? (There also appears to be corporate fear of any Ph.D.’s that aren’t “home grown” [brought up within the company culture, indoctrinated in the corporate way].)

    No, Fred, I fear the real issues run far deeper, and are more fundamental. Unfortunately, this leads me to be less hopeful that this “U.S. loss of scientific leadership” is to be but a “short-term phenomenon”, let alone that “we are already seeing signs of a turnaround.”

    David

  2. I own a PhD and I do research since around 10 years now, and I’m convinced that intellectual freedom is important, and even indispensable in carrying on a research program. Especially, really good ideas cannot be pursued by means of only a short -term agenda, and the long-term plan you must build for this purpose is never guaranteed to succeed (otherwise it would not be research).

    I bring back these very simple basics of how to do research for the sake of making these explicit, and to notice that nowadays, lots of people seem to neglect this aspect of science: and especially in corporate environments, it seems that people really don’t get it.

    Thus I see no evidence that corporate funding ever has been better for science, especially not from the point of view of fundamental research, i.e. the kind of thing that usually brings no direct benefits in a forseeable future. In my experience, state-funded research brings more freedom to researchers, although of course, there have been environments like bell labs in the past, but such kind of quality tends to remain an exception in the corporate world.

    Closer to a real explanation for the problem of science decline in the west would rather be the fact that during the cold war, the west was fighting a power (the USSR) which (at least that’s what they claimed) was somehow built on the idea that progress is the most fundamental force in human history (they were even claiming that there are “laws of history” which completely determine the historical future).

    The point is: now that USSR has been put down, it seems to me that (especially in the US), intellectual tendencies are going in a direction where everything which is related to USSR (or to “socialism”) is blindly rejected in a way that was not practiced in previous times. And of course, this is because in these previous times, our own survival was called into question, thus it would have been foolish to despise science.

    Nowadays, things are different, and our lack of willingness to criticize our own culture and to see our weaknesses leads us to a very unwise and appalling path.

    To quote only one example mentioned above: in the 70’s, the idea of a public, widely respected attack on evolution (aka “intelligent design”) could only have been written in a science fiction book, or perhaps in charlatanic science works like Lyssenko’s.

    Since several years now, from the point of view of progress and the simple fact that science should be part of our culture, it regularly seems to me that we are living in a nightmare. It’s exacly like that: the real situation and lack of concern is in fact appalling: science (i.e.: rigour in science, and the related belief in human progress) is being silently erased from the public culture. But exacly like it is in a nightmare, we act like if nothing was that dangerous, because we feel we sleep, and that for sure, we will awake at the end of the night.

    But as far as I know, nobody is sleeping here, and redressing the situation will not happen without a lot of effort. And currently, it seems to me that we don’t really believe in the current reality, we believe “of course, it’s temporary”. But it’s not, although step by step, we unwise dreamers surrender without even a fight.

    Henri

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