Reunifying America

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Science  10 Nov 2016:
aal3815
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal3815

I was in Berlin on the night of the United States presidential election, waiting for the Falling Walls conference to begin on 9 November. The bruising 2016 presidential campaign revealed societal fragmentation across the nation. Being in Berlin to absorb the election news had some unique resonances. Here, history has shown that there can be grave dangers in division and benefits of unification. Yet countries everywhere are showing signs of deep polarization. We must understand more fully these divisions. Communities at all levels and across sectors must work hard on drawing citizenry, and the world, together. The scientific community must recognize its important role in helping to break down barriers and find solutions that will build better lives for everyone.

Falling Walls is where scientists from around the world have convened for the past 8 years to discuss how to tackle society’s major challenges. The name of the conference is derived from the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, which reunified East and West Germany. Germany, Europe, and the world have benefitted greatly from the reunification. Ironically, this date also corresponds to the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, when, in 1938, Nazi soldiers and civilians rampaged across Germany, destroying Jewish businesses and synagogues. This fragmentation of society foreshadowed horrors yet to come. These events are not meant to imply a comparison of leaders, but rather, to provide clear markers of the power of unity and the dangers of division.

Deep discontent and substantial differences in opinion now exist across America. Much of this discord is centered around the impact of globalization. Voting patterns changed in regions where, for example, there were once traditional centers of heavy industry and domestic manufacturing jobs. The election results and exit polling also revealed that the United States is sharply divided along lines of gender, race, and educational attainment.

And yet, historically, Americans have always shared many important characteristics, including a strong work ethic; a willingness to take risks; an acceptance, if at times quite grudging, of welcoming immigrants to build better lives for themselves and for all of us; and an ability to invent and discover, with tremendous societal and economic benefits. Many of the discussions that I had in Berlin have shown how these features are highly regarded and respected by other countries. These qualities may unravel if the nation’s societal distress is not carefully examined.

The scientific enterprise embodies many of these cherished characteristics, and its own history and culture of problem-solving and collaboration may help bridge the divides. Research requires hours of hard work, often frustrating and seemingly fruitless. Exploring new areas or translating results into practical benefits requires expenditure of time and effort and, sometimes, considerable financial risk. This enterprise has been global for a long time, and the United States gains tremendously from individuals who begin or extend their scientific careers in this country. Many “American” Nobel laureates came to the United States from abroad. What is the output? Technological innovation and unimagined discoveries that drive progress, open new opportunities, and improve societal well-being.

It is important to understand the basis for the divisions across the United States and elsewhere. The tools of social science should be harnessed to better examine these divides. This will require careful listening to avoid missing important cues. While such a diagnostic phase is under way, scientists must continue to reach out and offer insights and mechanisms that provide the factual foundations for a collective path forward. The United States now ventures into somewhat uncharted territory with a President-elect who will come into office with no experience in governing and relatively vague positions about many aspects of domestic and foreign policy. Moving ahead productively will be an important test not only for American institutions, but for everyone.

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