Seizing the Opportunities

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Science  10 Feb 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5762, pp. 741
DOI: 10.1126/science.1125410

Alan I. Leshner


Gilbert S. Omenn


This year's annual meeting of the american association for the advancement of science (AAAS) celebrates “Grand Challenges, Great Opportunities.” The program was designed to challenge scientists, engineers, teachers, and citizens to approach major scientific and societal problems in ways that create opportunities to apply the best in science and technology for broad public benefit. The meeting showcases a diverse array of important scientific findings and provocative questions and emphasizes the enormous potential of modern science to advance all aspects of life around the world.

That potential has been heralded in recent public statements by both science and policy leaders and in formal reports that have been widely quoted by the media. Those reports, however, not only emphasize the great opportunities. They also point out the very real danger that those challenges will go unmet and those opportunities will be lost unless the nations of the world focus seriously and urgently on improving the infrastructure for science, engineering, and innovation.

The October 2005 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, identifies two key challenges facing the United States that are tightly linked to science and engineering capabilities: creating and sustaining high-quality jobs for Americans and meeting the nation's need for clean, affordable, reliable energy. The report argues that America must strengthen its commitment to long-term basic research; develop, recruit, and retain top students, scientists, and engineers from both the United States and abroad; dramatically improve K-12 mathematics and science education for all students; and ensure that the United States remains the premier place in the world for innovation. The report lays out a series of actions to meet those goals, which AAAS strongly supports.


Similarly, the National Summit on Competitiveness, held at the U.S. Department of Commerce in December 2005, began its report with the message: “If trends in U.S. research and education continue, our nation will squander its economic leadership, and the results will be a lower standard of living for the American people.” The summit urged specific actions to revitalize fundamental research, expand the U.S. innovation talent pool, and enable the United States to lead the world in the development and deployment of advanced technologies. In its 125th anniversary issue last year, Science sought to stimulate scientific risk-taking and creativity by highlighting 125 compelling questions about “What We Don't Know.”

Many policy-makers recognize that the nations of the world must ensure that we collectively seize the opportunities embedded in modern science and engineering research and technology. In the U.S. Congress, there has been a flurry of bipartisan bills to authorize programs that could achieve the science and engineering infrastructure development goals laid out in these reports. Some have focused on individual scientific agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health, whereas others have been broader in scope. The U.S. president's 2006 State of the Union Address last week outlined an American Competitiveness Initiative that could substantially increase support for fundamental research in the physical sciences and for science education, and enact a permanent tax credit for industrial R&D.

Our nation faces a distressing reality test: Although some U.S. policy-makers are working to authorize badly needed new programs and strengthen effective existing ones, the most recent U.S. budgets actually appropriated for science and engineering research and innovation (other than those directly related to homeland security or the military) have been either flat or decreasing in real dollars. Essentially everyone recognizes the importance of protection against security threats both at home and abroad. However, we must remind ourselves that our security also depends on the health and economic competitiveness of our people. We must find the political will to make the investments that will invigorate fundamental and translational research, strengthen science education, and create a more supportive climate for innovation, thereby meeting the national and global challenges to our economic security and exploiting the great opportunities in science and engineering that we proudly identify.

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