Two recent pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education riff off a just-released report by the RAND Corporation to make the case that those who have argued that U.S. science and technology dominance is at risk in a globally competitive world are exaggerating.
Richard Monastersky writes in “Despite Recent Obits, U.S. Science and Engineering Remain Robust“:
Although Congress, President Bush, and top university chancellors have publicly fretted about the declining health of science and engineering in the United States, a new report argues that the U.S. has maintained its supremacy in those sectors. Further, the report says, the nation should not overreact to overseas growth in technological prowess.
And Daniel Greenberg writes in “Call Off the Funeral: Science in U.S. is Lively and Growing”:
The RAND report stands out because gloomy findings predominate in assessments of American science. In 1985, for example, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for the National Science Foundation expressed exasperation with the din of doom: “Its the same argument every year, about losing the lead.” In 2005, the National Research Councilthe research arm of the National Academy of Sciences and its subsidiariesissued a blockbuster compilation of R&D anxiety, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which still reverberates around Washington as science-policy gospel.
The thing is, I’m not sure there are many within the science advocacy community who would disagree with the primary findings of the RAND report, U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology. The report found that the U.S. continues to be the world leader in S&T innovation; that federal support for resarch is generally up over the last decade or so — though that increase is almost all in the life sciences, the physical sciences have been held essentially flat; there is lots of opportunity in the science and engineering workforce; and the U.S. continues to be heavily dependent on our ability to attract the best and the brightest in the world to work and study here.
Not many, if any, in the DC science advocacy community would disagree with those assessments. The concerns, of course, are the trend lines — they are almost all trending the wrong way. (The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation has a good compilation of many of these benchmarks in their Benchmarks of Our Innovation Future II report.) Our competitors worldwide are every day increasing their capacity to compete with us — investing in better facilities, more partnerships, increased investments in key areas — and we’re concerned the U.S. isn’t matching them with anything close to the same intensity.
Gene Spafford, one of my Government Affairs Committee members, notes that these pieces also seem to give short shrift to the disruptive effect one or two key discoveries can have — think light bulb, antibiotics, the transitor, controlled fission, the Internet, and more. Right now there is intensive research in genetics, nanotechnology, parallel computation, fusion, alternative energy and several other areas. A major advance in any one of them would be transformative on a large scale. It won’t be incremental. If we’re concerned about our national position as opposed to simply the advancement of science, the we want to somehow ensure that those advances happen here. And that requires having a prepared base and an active set of programs of inquiry.
The U.S. is the global leader in science and technology. It’s true that the U.S. has enough of a lead at this point to “decay gracefully” (as Newt Gingrich describes it). But I’m not sure that’s what most want for this country, or for their children and grandchildren who will have to live in it.