U.S. Science Dominance Is the Wrong Issue

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Science  08 Oct 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5694, pp. 197
DOI: 10.1126/science.306.5694.197

The quality, breadth, and depth of the presentations at the recent multidisciplinary Euroscience Open Forum 2004 in Stockholm, Sweden, made two things clear. First, superb science is being carried out in many countries; second, the scientific enterprise has become truly global in character. Most sessions included participants from a variety of countries, as did many papers. From the perspective of the world's largest general scientific society and one that has itself become more and more international over the years (20,000 AAAS members come from outside the United States), this globalization of science is cause for celebration. Better still, more countries are making productive investments in their science infrastructures, and this portends well for the future of all humankind.

At the same time, recent weeks have seen strident laments from many American quarters, to the effect that the United States may be losing its longstanding global preeminence in science. Some of that concern was triggered when the U.S. National Science Board issued its Science and Engineering Indicators, 2004 report last May. It showed that the United States is no longer the largest producer of scientific information. The European Union is outpacing the United States in the total number of papers published. Moreover, the U.S. share of major science prizes has decreased significantly over the past decade.

For those Americans who take an overly nationalistic view of the scientific enterprise, this might be bad news. From a more global viewpoint, however, these facts signal a long-awaited and very positive trend: Better and better science is being done all over the world.


The United States should not be wasting energy right now on the question of its global scientific dominance. A far more fundamental issue is clouding the future. Both the U.S. policy climate and funding trends for science are deteriorating, and those changes pose significant risk to the future of U.S. science. On the funding front, the events of September 11, 2001, led to a major shift in the priorities for support of science, a shift that emphasized areas closely related to defense and homeland security at the apparent expense of many other scientific domains. The most recent fiscal year 2005 congressional budget markups would provide notable increases only for defense and homeland security R&D. The rest would be funded at flat levels on average, with some important agencies experiencing decreases. The projections for the next few years are equally dismal (see http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/). How can we recruit the best young people to science careers if they foresee a grim funding picture for their future work?

The relationship between science and large segments of the U.S. public and policy communities is also eroding. Much recent public discussion has focused on whether there is now more political and ideological interference in the conduct of science and the use of its products than in the past. But the historical question does not really matter. What matters is that we are now experiencing a counterproductive overlay of politics, ideology, and religious conviction on the U.S. climate for science.

The list is alarming. Debates about intelligent design and about stem cell research often pit religious beliefs against scientific data and therapeutic promise, respectively. A recent ruling by the Department of the Treasury held that U.S. scientific journals could not edit and publish papers with authors from trade-embargoed countries. Last year, a motion to force the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to cancel funding for an array of grants on sexual behavior, drug abuse, and HIV/AIDS failed by only two votes in the U.S. Congress. Then, a month ago, Congress actually did second-guess peer review and voted to prohibit funding for two NIH grants whose subject matter made them uncomfortable. They also voted to restrict international scientific travel. Other examples can be found in the claimed distortions of data reporting on health disparities, climate change, costs of Medicare drug coverage, etc.

Worry about whether the United States is better in science than everyone else in the whole world is misplaced anxiety. We need to focus our full energy on the U.S. home front, because the serious erosion of the climate that originally led to America's preeminence in science is now threatening its very eminence—and thus, its future.

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