Alarm Bells Should Help Us Refocus

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Science  30 Jun 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5782, pp. 1847
DOI: 10.1126/science.1131478

We're hearing alarm bells these days about science in the United States. On the one hand, we've been told that in the global economy of today's “flattened” world, we need to bolster innovation and competitiveness and science and engineering research and education. Earlier this year, when President Bush announced his American Competitiveness Initiative, the future appeared brighter for the physical sciences, math, and engineering (although the National Institutes of Health budget remains flat). But other alarms have sounded that the increases may be at the expense of the disciplines that have historically sought to understand how all this hard work actually helps societies deal with these very issues. Last month, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), chair of a Senate panel that oversees the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), aggressively argued that the agency should limit its funding for the social sciences and focus on the “hard” sciences. Although the committee stopped short of tying NSF's hands, Congress has yet to make a final decision on whether or not competitiveness is just about technology. Congress should think hard about this.

In the past, investments in science have brought breakthrough technologies, a productive technical workforce and positive trade balance in the high-tech sector, and medical miracles, along with many other tangible benefits. Most Americans believe they are healthier and better off because of the nation's long-standing preeminence in science and technology. Moreover, because other nations are replicating our blueprint for research and higher education with increasing success, competition is growing fierce. So fierce, that our country's present and future position in the world economy is at considerable risk.

All this challenges our political leaders, but it should also challenge the broad scientific community to make sure that our science actually helps provide what most Americans need. Clearly, this requires an aggressive and ambitious program of basic research in the hard sciences, including physics, chemistry, materials science, mathematics and computer science, biology and biomedical science, earth and space sciences, and engineering. But that will not be enough.

The successful application of new knowledge and breakthrough technologies, which are likely to occur with ever-increasing frequency, will require an entirely new interdisciplinary approach to policy-making: one that operates in an agile problem-solving environment and works effectively at the interface where science and technology meet business and public policy. It must be rooted in a vastly improved understanding of people, organizations, cultures, and nations and be implemented by innovative strategies and new methods of communication. All of this can occur only by engaging the nation's top social scientists, including policy experts, to work in collaboration with scientists and engineers from many fields and diverse institutions on multidisciplinary research efforts that address large but well-defined national and global problems. This will not be easy. It will require qualitative changes in research cultures and in the way federal agencies consider research funding.

Cynics may dismiss these concerns with an abrupt, “We've seen all this before.” I believe they are wrong and it would be folly to ignore the alarm bells. Rather, let us use these sometimes shrill warnings to help us refocus and regain the high road for the 21st century for science, the nation, and all of humanity. Albert Einstein eloquently framed this issue for scientists in 1931 at the California Institute of Technology: “Concern for man himself and his fate must always constitute the chief objective of all technological endeavors … Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.” Congress, as well as scientists, should remember these words.

ILLUSTRATION: PAT N. LEWIS Over decades, as our scientific knowledge has become more sophisticated, we have come to recognize how such things as human dynamics and institutional behavior can either enhance or impede the benefits to society of our research achievements. But recognizing that reality is only the first step. We need a much better understanding of how new technical knowledge and tools translate into products, jobs, and wealth; how people learn; how offshoring of jobs, even technical jobs, affects our workforce and quality of life; how increased investment in science and engineering research leads to increased industrial productivity and to better jobs; and how to cope with a host of ever-changing societal problems. These issues are the domain of the social sciences, which also need increased federal support. But that still is not sufficient.

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