So, been a while…day job and family and existential dread. But I’m back…if only to point folks to a piece of mine up just now in The Boston Globe. Despite the headline, I’m not writing about current tech, nor do I argue that China has already won that race.
Rather, what’s got me going is the longer game that we’re playing — and possibly losing — in basic, curiosity-driven science. The TL:DR version of this is a quick recap of the 20th century story of the idea of government funded “useless” research that emerged in the US after scientists helped win the war with such science-derived developments as the atomic bomb, radar, and penicillin, to name the greatest hits.
I then point out that while US research funding hasn’t gone down much as a portion of GDP in recent years, others, especially China, have ramped up their investment, until now, when in absolute numbers they’re coming close to US spending, and by some measures are exceeding our effort. Add to that the tax we place on ourselves by becoming daily less hospitable to immigrants, and there’s a clear danger, ISTM, that US will cease to be at the forefront of at least some big areas of basic science.
Does this matter? Well, there’s this:
Though Nobel prizes are an imperfect measure, with 269 science wins through 2018, US-based researchers have utterly outpaced the second-place nation, Britain, with its 89 Nobels.
More importantly, money spent on basic research produces more discoveries, enhancing a nation’s soft power. US astronauts on the moon may not have affected the price of eggs, but did establish America as the most technologically culture on the planet for the next few decades.
Unexpected technological advances have also flowed from seemingly impractical pursuits. For one classic example, the polymerase chain reaction, a Nobel-winning discovery in the 80s that enables the creation of an unlimited number of copies of a stretch of DNA, is one of the basic, essential tools of the modern bioengineering industry. The key to the process was found in the 1960s, by two microbe researchers taking samples in Yellowstone’s hot springs, just to find out how bacteria could survive in the heat. Transistors, invented in the 1950s, turn on quantum theory. GPS relies on Einstein’s general theory of relativity to make the corrections needed to locate your phone to the stretch of sidewalk you’re passing. Some studies suggest that the economic return on science spending may range up to $80 for each dollar invested.
As in: science is both a cultural good and, even if the path from question to invention isn’t always obvious, an impressive driver of human wealth and well being.
The obvious outrages of Trump and the GOP fuel my daily rage. But it’s their less visible, but constant and insidious neglect and ignorant disdain for learning and inquiry that both carries me to the edge of despair, and astonishment at the reckless abandonment of one of America’s critical sources of power. It’s true that over the decades Democrats have mustered their own share disdain for taxpayer-funded science (anyone remember Proxmire), right now, we’re in an era in which Republicans have set the baseline…and it is, in its way, a surrender.
Fortunately, as I conclude in my piece, this is one folly that has an easy solution: more money. Not even all that much. It will still take time to make up ground abandoned in this know-nothing age, but it’s doable. If and only if we win in 2020.
With that…open thread.
Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, 1768.