Mixed messages on science could jeopardize US companies

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“It is not an immutable law of nature that the good guys will always be the best scientists and engineers; it has been the fruit of decades of investment. Imagine a world where the bad guys have the best scientists and the best engineers, and their hackers are better than our hackers, and their space programs are better, etc.” These are the words of William G. Kaelin Jr., 2019 Nobel Laureate and Sidney Farber Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Dr. Kaelin shared these thoughts during a recent conversation with me about, first, how bipartisan support for science and engineering during the Space Race and the Cold War helped inspire an entire generation of scientists, and second, how the mixed messages about science in recent years jeopardize our future security and prosperity.

“In the sixties, for example, we treated scientists and engineers like heroes in the United States,” he told me. “In many ways, other scientists of my generation and I are products of that message. But I fear that students today will hear mixed messages from Washington about science, such as, if the facts are objectifiable. They see scientists thrown under the bus for drawing conclusions that contradict what policy makers want to hear. Children are smart and they are certainly not oblivious to what is going on.

To be sure, there have been unique exogenous shocks in the post-World War II era that have united Americans and reinvigorated government investment in science; for example, the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. “No event since Pearl Harbor has triggered such repercussions in public life,” notes historian Walter McDougall.

Research from Clemson University found that “by linking the quality of science education to the survival of the nation, (the National Science Foundation) was able to increase its scholarship budget by more than 100% immediately after Sputnik.” And just a year later, in 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, authorizing more than $1 billion to strengthen science, math, and language education. modern foreign countries in order to “guarantee a skilled workforce of sufficient quality and quantity to meet needs”. national defense needs of the United States. »

As Sputnik, the space race and the Cold War galvanized exogenous shocks that spurred support and investment in science, one would think a global pandemic would be just as motivating.

However, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 29% of American adults say they have a great deal of trust in medical scientists to act in the best interest of the public, up from 40% in November 2020.

And an analysis of the General Social Survey, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, found that trust in science has become increasingly polarized, noting that, “In 2021, 64% of Democrats have a high confidence in the scientific community, while only 34% of Republicans say the same thing.”

Dr Kaelin, whose Nobel Prize-winning research has huge implications for the fight against cancer, told me: “Sometimes people ask me what we in cancer research can learn from Covid. -19. My answer is that the more you invest in new knowledge creation, the faster you will acquire knowledge, and therefore the faster we will get the treatments we need. We were able to act quickly on Covid-19 thanks to decades of fundamental research related, for example, to chemistry, viruses and the immune system.

Unfortunately, the Conference Board’s Committee for Economic Development notes that “the United States’ lead in the advancement of science and technology is eroding. Although the United States has steadily increased its total R&D expenditure over time, their global share of R&D spending has declined significantly.” And while the United States topped the Bloomberg Innovation Index in 2013, by 2021 it had dropped out of the top ten.

Given the incentives of most corporate CEOs, it’s no surprise that they typically spend more time thinking about their company’s product development strategies than the government’s investment in pure research. and public confidence in science. But the less polarized views of science in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, combined with significant investments in science research and education by the federal government, laid the foundation for the success of many of today’s companies. . And there are enough warning signs that our current reliance on science and its funding could have deleterious effects on American business in the future.

This article is both a warning and a rallying cry for corporate America to step up their support for science. Science takes money, time and trust, and although the results are not always predictable, history shows that the payoffs are enormous. As Dr. Kaelin told me, “Many of the recent breakthroughs that most excite me weren’t predictable at first. But a scientist who was properly resourced, and had the time and confidence to follow his curiosity and instinct, discovered something that turned out to be incredibly useful.”

And if that wasn’t enough to motivate business leaders to back more funding and trust science, Dr. Kaelin offered this chilling thought: “If an enemy of the United States made a to-do list , one of his top priorities would be to undermine American science and engineering America’s security has long been bolstered, if not driven, by having the best scientists and engineers.

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