Global Science and U.S. Security

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Science  20 Jun 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5627, pp. 1847
DOI: 10.1126/science.300.5627.1847

The U.S. societal enterprise that we call science is superb. Its remarkable power and reach as part of the international scientific community today are unique in history. But we must remember that American scientific expertise in virtually every field has been leveraged by the rise over the past 40 years of this global scientific community. The phenomenon of world science has been driven largely by U.S. initiatives: money for research; competition for funding; an emphasis on innovation; and, most important, a powerful, open, and innovative scientific culture fostered in our laboratories, companies, and especially our universities. English is the language of science today not because of the English industrial revolution or even because of giants like Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, and Darwin, but because of what has happened to science in this country since World War II.

The reality of this phenomenon is particularly evident in the biological sciences. The knowledge explosion in biology over the past few decades has been dramatic and thoroughly international. Having spawned a global community that depends on it, the United States is also fully dependent on that community for its own technical strength and to drive the research in commercial, educational, and even military technical enterprises in our own country. The people trained here—foreign postdoctoral fellows and graduate students—form an essential part of most U.S. research teams. If they return home, they become influential scientists in their own countries, and, as key foreign collaborators, bring their energy, creativity, and ideas to the global enterprise on which U.S. laboratories depend. If these foreign-born scientists remain here, they often find themselves in leadership positions in U.S. scientific organizations. For example, more than 50% of new faculty appointed in U.S. research universities are foreign-born.

If the United States retreats and cuts itself off from the global community it has helped create—and it is showing distressing signs of doing just that—our future science will be doomed to mediocrity. The only uncertainty will be the rapidity of that decline. The United States has benefited remarkably from tapping into a wide range of global talent, energy, and scientific creativity. The foundations of a truly global scientific community have been well laid. We're too dependent now to withdraw. The internationalists among us are proud of America's accomplishments; the isolationists fear our dependence on the rest of the world.

In ignorance or defiance of the global reality of modern scientific research and the transient nature of its leading edge, the United States is embarked on a path to further its national security by enacting policies that will inevitably degrade its scientific strength. Immigration restrictions imposed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service are thwarting the ambitions of scientists, including many trained here, to contribute to scientific advances in the United States. New U.S. policies could restrict even further the base of scientists who fuel the technical engine here at home. Government-imposed limits on the publication of research results, in the name of homeland security, would inhibit the international collaboration that in turn fertilizes the global community and advances our own programs. In short, the international character of the scientific enterprise is in danger, and, if lost, the U.S. technology edge will go with it. History is replete with examples of the consequences of losing the edge in technical innovation. The slide to mediocrity may take a decade or more, going undetected until it's too late to easily recover. By the time the slippage becomes too evident to ignore, it will take decades to correct.

This threat to our long-term security is as real today as are terrorists, if more subtle. Like it or not, the United States has the ability, and perhaps the will, to help keep an unpredictably dangerous world stable. We cannot afford to blunt that capability by undercutting our science, for that would be a double loss to the world. Knowledge is central to our security, and scientific knowledge is key. In a world where security and unity are threatened daily, the global reality of a worldwide scientific enterprise represents both a real value and a symbol of the security of humanity. Let's not throw it away.

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