The State of Science

Written by Brandon Brown

SCIENCE The warning is being sounded ever more loudly, from newspaper headlines to the floor of Congress: The United States is about to be deposed as the world leader in science and technology. This groundswell of fear arises from the mounting number of scientists being trained in countries like China and India, and an apparent decline in new scientists at home. Responding to this anxiety, President Bush last year called for a $136 billion boost in federal funding for science education and research. But just what will it take for the United States to rebuild its house of science—and keep the lead in the global brain race? According to USF Associate Dean for Sciences Brandon Brown, we can start by rethinking how scientists are rewarded for innovation and launching a good, old-fashioned PR campaign.

FOR DEVOTEES of American science, today’s fears amount to an outsourcing of everything we hold dear. In our darkest moments, we see half the nation blathering on cell phones as they ship know-how and innovation to Asia, while we hear the other half praying to have all scientific questions shipped to the Holy Trinity. Ultimately, these fears tug strings both emotional and rational. At an unconscious level, we fear a fall from the high seat of technology into torch-lit streets ruled by superstition. We hold a collective pride, soaked in images of busy chalkboards, moon landings, lab coats, and horn-rimmed glasses. More consciously, on a level of cold logic, we understand science and technology as the economic growth hormones for the body GNP.

With any phobia, the afflicted must examine the facts and then focus on the factors within reach. If action replaces worry, American science can assure itself with some homework, some tinkering, and a savvy whitening of the teeth.

The threat of Asian science is often expressed in numbers. China and India produce ever-larger crops of eager scientists and engineers. But the real and relevant numbers are as elusive as the ether. Inside Higher Ed recently cited the case of the “disappearing Chinese engineers.” In a 2006 report titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” the National Academies of Science estimated that 600,000 engineers graduate in China per year, compared to 70,000 per year in America. This single offhand figure has become a factoid that every member of Congress can restate without reading an otherwise fascinating and important report. A subsequent bulletin from the National Academies has nearly halved the Chinese number and doubled the American output. Any relief felt at this update would be as silly as the worry. A nation with roughly five times our population should have more of every profession.

The real question should be: do hordes correlate to science innovation? Can we enumerate a nation’s scientists, like so many identical warheads, to measure discovery power? That makes as much sense as choosing a restaurant based on how many chefs they employ. One good idea, or two minds making a novel connection, can trump 100,000 working to fine-tune an existing technology, be it software or soft serve.

The purely qualitative fear is more substantive than the numerical. The worry of American science losing its standing reminds one of the nation’s reaction to evolving overseas basketball competition. Whether you’re talking steel, semiconductors or sports, everyone will catch up given one game and a constant set of rules. So we must do what we can to encourage innovation. In particular, market-ignorant research generates tomorrow’s unexpected technologies.

The French mathematician Henri Poincaré wrote of discovery as a game of combinatorics. We possess an enormous inventory of knowledge chunks. What creates the next breakthrough is the combination of chunks that were formerly separate. Most combinations are truly senseless, but once in a great while a combination opens a new vista. For instance, applying X-ray diffraction to complex biological molecules revealed the now-familiar double helix.

One obvious strategy for supporting Poincaré’s vision is to maintain diversity within the scientific enterprise. Much like economic investing, you want to keep a variety of experiments percolating, from the sensible to the risky. Fund labs of various sizes and distribute funds over a great range of disciplines. That includes, for instance, not funding genetics and microbiology to the exclusion of meso and macro scale biology. A diverse battery of science should also include funding scientists of various ages. The National Institutes of Health report a disturbing but obvious trend in their funding statistics. The average age of the traditional grant winner rose from about 40 years in 1980 to over 50 years in 2003. Without diminishing our more senior scientists, it’s important to recall that the pre-25 crowd has generated a wealth of groundbreaking discoveries, from Newton to Einstein.

Beaker Yet, the duration of scientific training is steadily increasing. Even the most promising and creative scientists complete one or more lengthy post-doctoral positions before having the freedom to run their own labs. At the root of increased training and increasing age of grant winners is the quantification of scientific prestige. We distill career accomplishments to a publication list and citation popularity.

Adjusting the mechanisms of scientific reward, then, becomes another primary strategy for elevating the future prospects of American science. This is far from a new cry, but to date it has done all the good of your average car alarm. Advancement, prestige and grant funding are all tied to one’s number of publications. Given so many scientists, so many projects, and so little time, the numerical measures are not a bad solution. And it works to this extent: good scientists can thrive, and those with suspect methods typically cannot.

The problem arises unintended, after this cycle runs for a number of generations with an increasing emphasis on quantities. A young scientist may have ideas of trying something new, to stick a toe in a wholly new pool, but for what incentive? The entire structure pushes this scientist to focus and refocus on her area of specific training; that’s how she maintains the stream of publications with an appropriate wake of citations. If you try something new, there aren’t necessarily research groups who can refer to your work. As with many human endeavors, the system gravitates to ruts.

THESE BROAD STROKES may paint too dire a picture. The system only needs minor alterations in terms of promotion review and grant review. But like campaign finance reform, the moneyed comfort of the status quo provides a substantial barrier.

The two main suggestions above sit within the house of science. There remain of course the external matters. We want to avoid becoming an under-funded, market-driven service sector for the American enterprise, and this is not an idle worry. The National Science Foundation won less than a quarter of 1 percent of the federal budget in 2005, a value that sat stagnant from 2004. At the same time, the NSF now promises return-on-the-dollar assessment of research, a Wall Street model that could choke innovation. We want both the public and national leadership (above the corporate level, if that still exists) to appreciate the long-term process of science innovation. And we’d like to find a polite way to avoid defensive debates that artificially pitch the scientific method against religious texts and beliefs.

So finally we arrive at the image battle, the PR campaign aimed at the doubting and/or disinterested masses. American scientists cope with everything from dedicated creationists to myopic politicians, but according to a 2004 Harris Interactive poll, “scientist” ranked at the top of the prestige pile for public opinion. More than half the people surveyed believe scientists had prestigious careers—compare that to 20 percent believing “architect” had the same, or 16 percent for “actor.”

If pure logic won’t help, and prestige isn’t the issue, what guides us? To aim big, we need to put a face on our cause. When the President of the United States consults science fiction writers for global warming advice, hundreds of scientists protest, with perhaps dozens making their way into print media. But nothing sticks. We need one main person, one recognizable talking head, for CNN to interview. I’m suggesting a “Scientist Laureate.” Yes, we have the presidents of national organizations and academies, but can you recall seeing one on television or in USA Today? The laureate would take a four-year term to champion the good fight, 24/7 in the media. While the scientific credentials would be required, charm, humor, media savvy, and political skill would be just as crucial.

Finally, an acceptance of public relations reality will help. We cannot just tell people what we do. As uncomfortable or even humiliating as it may sound, we must show people the humans behind the science. Such efforts need to be everything but arrogant or staid—consider a reality show of doubt-drenched graduate students, for instance.

In the end, PR success would serve two purposes. There’s the practical matter, keeping the checks coming. But there’s also a social sort of faith at science’s core. If we let the public carry the cliché of the awkward obsessive scientist, removed from reality, we’ve told not even half the story. We do science not just to discover nature’s hidden beautiful truths, but also, for the hope that discovery steadily makes human existence a better, richer miracle. That notion is easy to lose day to day.

Just like other Americans, scientists increasingly obsess over the near term, looking not much further than their computer monitors. For science in particular, this poses risks to long-term health, vision, and our stunning good looks. 

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