All revolutions begin with a seminal moment. This year, we will celebrate one of the greatest in the history of science: the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s 1905 landmark papers that introduced the special theory of relativity and the equivalence of mass and energy. As we explore their impact, we must ask ourselves if we as a nation are doing what it takes to spark new scientific revolutions. Are we nurturing the next Einsteins? Regrettably, the answer is no. The lack of federal investment in basic research and restrictive immigration policies are eroding America’s leadership in the sciences. The ripple effects of these two troublesome trends are enormous: Our future economic competitiveness and quality of life depend on our ability to stay ahead of the scientific and technological curve.
The splitting of the atom ushered in an unprecedented era of public investment in basic scientific research after World War II. The National Academy of Sciences (citing the work of Nobel Laureate Robert Solow) estimates that nearly half of our nation’s economic growth since that time can be attributed to advances in science and technology.
However, in recent years investment has shifted away from research in the physical sciences and engineering to the life sciences. The irony is that advances in the life and medical sciences will be impossible without their physical and engineering counterparts. I agree with the recommendation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that the funding levels for the physical sciences and engineering be brought to parity with that for the life sciences, which has more than doubled over the past decade. Adequate funding alone, however, will not guarantee that science in the United States maintains its strength.
I’m getting more encouraged by the frequency with which the concept that federal support of R&D leads to innovation, which in turn enables U.S. competitiveness, is showing up in the press and out of the mouths of policy makers on both sides of the aisle. As soon as I get some time, I think I’ll compile all the recent examples I can find — it’s a big list. But in the meantime, you can probably get more than a few examples by browsing the funding and policy categories in the archives on the left.
And the rest of the Alexander editorial is certainly worth reading.