Saturday, May 5, 2007

Three recently released reports should be read by every American but have somehow escaped significant coverage by our media.

The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation report “Benchmarks of our innovation future II,” (, American Innovation Proclamation (, and the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” nearly simultaneously raise alarm bells that America’s global lead in innovation, which fuels our economy and is mostly driven by basic research in science and engineering, is slipping as other nations rapidly catch up to us in the global era.

Whether it’s U.S. patent applications, Ph.D.s generated in the sciences, students pursuing scientific careers, science and engineering papers in peer-reviewed journals, investment in research and development or export of high-technology, the general trend for the United States has been mostly flat and even slipping. In other nations such as China, Singapore, South Korea, India, Taiwan, and elsewhere, there have been dramatic increases in these benchmarks, illustrating that our days as the global leader in science and engineering may be severely limited if nothing is done to rectify this. Yet, so much of our economy depends on discoveries that arose from fundamental scientific research.

For example, discoveries such as the transistor, the laser, nuclear magnetic resonance, fiber optics, rotating magnetic fields, X-rays, nuclear fission and fusion, came from basic research in physics decades ago. Today, just these discoveries spawned the information age (via the IC chip, which miniaturized computers making them cheap and easy to mass produce), grocery store and library scanners and precision surgery, MRI exams, high-speed digital communication, alternating current and hydropower, airport scanners and medical and dental X-ray machines, and nuclear energy. Thus, investments made mostly by the United States (and U.S. companies such as AT&T) many years ago still pay off handsomely for us all.

However, in today’s global era of the “bottom line,” companies are less and less willing to invest in basic research because their shareholders won’t see returns on their investments for some years, perhaps even decades. Yet so much of our national economy, well-being, and security depend heavily on these past achievements. In today’s highly competitive era, we cannot rest on our laurels but must fight to remain the world’s leader in innovation.

For example, Airbus recently led Boeing for a while in aircraft orders until the dollar devalued relative to the euro. General Motors, once the global leader in car manufacturing is being overtaken in sales by Toyota Motor Co. The U.S. lost out a long time ago in the telecommunications market.

From a recent report from the Office of Naval Research: “China is spending a greater portion of it R&D investment in the hard science areas that underpin modern defense and commercial activities, whereas the United States is investing more heavily in the medical psychological (e.g. drug use) science areas that underpin improvement of individual health and comfort.” Unsaid is that almost all the advances in modern medicine were made possible by fundamental research in the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, materials science etc.).

Last January, China became the first nation to destroy a satellite using a land-based anti-satellite missile. The Chinese longterm investment in hard sciences is paying off.

Recent problems associated with global warming, pollution, and dwindling and unstable resources (particularly energy and water) will only be solved with science because they relate to the natural world. New economic opportunities will be created by the new technologies created (e.g. hydrogen storage, renewable and alternative energies — solar, wind, ethanol etc., nuclear fusion and fission, desalination, carbon storage) but only if we invest long-term in hard sciences basic research.

In that spirit, our government must take the lead to recapture and rekindle America’s fascination with and support of scientific research by:

(1) Increasing funding for basic research.

(2) Revamping our educational system so all Americans learn science and are encouraged to excel and seek scientific careers.

(3) Encourage U.S. industries to support their own research via tax credits.

(4) Enhance America’s ability to compete for and keep the best talent in the world.

President Bush has proposed an “American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI)” which, among other beneficial things, would double the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Energy Department Science Office over 10 years.

Unfortunately, these efforts have been mired in partisan politics and delays. Promises of support from various members of Congress and the Senate have infrequently materialized when money is distributed by the Appropriations Committee. Given that the entire NSF budget is equivalent to about one month of our squandered effort in Iraq, this effort should be a “no brainer.”

America can’t wait for its leaders to get their act together and pass legislation to increase funding for basic research in the hard sciences when it is too late. We have too much to lose. I encourage my fellow Americans and our leaders to support basic research in the hard sciences. It is the cornerstone upon which our modern economy, security, and wellbeing are constructed.


Assistant physics professor, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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