The American century, as the 20th century was known, was built on scientific progress. American corporations were the first to develop major in-house research labs and the first to work closely with academic institutions. After the Soviets launched Sputnik, we went into the overdrive that put a man on the moon.
In the second half of the 20th century, we reaped the harvest: fiber optics, integrated circuits, wireless communications, lasers, the Web, global positioning satellites, hybrid automobiles, video games, computers, and an enormous variety of medical technologies and drugs. All these inventions and discoveries transformed daily life around the world because American know-how and entrepreneurial energy married them to venture capital, then produced and marketed them.
Today, however, this is all being reversed. Why? Two reasons. The first is the cutback in federal support for advanced science. The second, many researchers believe, is that the Bush administration is fostering an antiscience culture. President Bush paved the way to double the National Science Foundation’s budget over five years, then, just two years later, he allowed Congress to cut the projected budget by $2 billion. Cut budgets for research and training, and we won’t have the economic growth tomorrow that we had yesterday. And this when we face, for the first time in our history, competition from low-wage, high-human-capital communities in China, India, and Asia. At the very least, it means fewer American jobs.
We must find the money to reverse this trend. It is not so much a current expenditure as an investment in our future. But money has to be accompanied by a recommitment to basing policy on professional analysis and scientific data from responsible agencies. An administration that packs advisory committees with industry representatives and disbands panels that provide advice unacceptable to political ideology is shortchanging the future of all of us.
Zuckerman also makes the case for the reestablishment of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment — an office set up during the Nixon Administration to provide non-partisan advice to lawmakers on scientific and technical matters, but eliminated in FY 96 as part of congressional belt-tightening. While I agree that the current Administration appears to have issues with scientific advisory bodies that offer advice that conflicts with its policy goals, I’m not sure reconstituting OTA will help. As a veteran of the House Science Committee staff (though after OTA was disbanded), I can attest to the value of having direct contact between Members of Congress and researchers and technologists. I’m sympathetic to arguments that OTA, by virtue of the “buffer” they created between scientists and legislators, encouraged a “bureaucratic” approach to science policy, and I think the most critical functions of the office are probably well-tended to by entities like the Congressional Research Service, the National Academies, and the Government Accountability Office. Plus, as a science advocate now, I appreciate that organizations like CRA are more relied upon by key members of Congress and staff to provide input on science and technology policy.
But otherwise, I think Zuckerman’s piece is on the money. He’s certainly right about the importance of looking at federal support for research as an investment in the future of the country. Read the whole thing.