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Jewish World Review June 1, 2001 / 10 Sivan, 5761

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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A time to reap --- and sow

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- The tumult caused by the sudden power shift in the Senate will naturally clamor for the lion's share of public attention in the short term. But when the Senate gets around to the details of budget making, there is an item–beyond President Bush's signature tax-cut proposal–that both Democrats and Republicans would do well to study closely. It has to do with what the Old Testament called seed corn; in modern terms, it is the amount of money we allocate to invest in science. The Bush administration's proposals for next year have far more decreases in science spending than increases. That's a mistake–a big one. Our well-being today is based on the science of yesterday. Most of the truly great scientists of today will happily tell you they stand "on the shoulders of giants" who contributed in the past.

It was these giants, backed by massive government investments, who gave us jet engines, radar, antibiotics, and an understanding of electronic processes. Nobody at the time could say just how the work in basic science would spin out into computers, the Internet, and all the other wonders that have eliminated drudgery, created more leisure time, and extended our life spans. CAT scans (computerized axial tomography), ultrasound, and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which cumulatively have contributed to the greatest advance in medical diagnostics, are all products of atomic, nuclear, and high-energy physics, quantum chemistry, computer sciences, solid-state physics, and applied medicine. An increasing proportion of advances, in short, are interdisciplinary. As Harold Varmus, the former head of the National Institutes of Health and now the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, points out, scientists from various disciplines worked together to accomplish these breakthroughs in medical research.

Winners and losers. Given this history, isn't it obvious why there's such concern today in the scientific community over the level of science funding in the new budget? Despite an overall increase in spending on research, it is really the life sciences, especially the work at places like NIH, that have benefited most. But accounting for inflation, research spending in the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, and even Energy is down substantially. The winners are health and defense. The losers are the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA.

These are dangerous cuts. Key leadership positions in some of these vital agencies remain unfilled. We don't even have a presidential science adviser, a position first created by President Eisenhower.

But this need not be so. An amendment that seeks to add about $1.4 billion to physical-science research for the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science should be supported. Beyond that, we must enhance the development of American-born scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, so we can reduce our dependency on foreign-born scientists, who often return to their home countries.

Perhaps these deficiencies have created little excitement because the public is still a bit ambivalent about technological advances. Chlorofluorocarbons gave us refrigeration but a hole in the ozone, too. DDT gave us healthier plants but health risks for humans. Just below the surface of public awareness is a distrust about the capacity of science-based industry to regulate itself or deal with ethical issues, such as cloning. These are understandable anxieties. But it would be tragic if they engendered complacency or hostility about investments in science. It is the vital research in our universities and national laboratories–supported by the federal government–that has propelled our economic growth and productivity gains. The evidence is there for anyone with eyes to see. Within 35 miles of a University of California campus is located 1 in 3 of America's biotechnology companies. Within a computer chip's toss of Stanford University is Silicon Valley. As someone who began his career in the Boston area, I was always conscious of the proliferating beneficence from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard-related companies located on Route 128. They conferred on the region worldwide standing in computer technology.

The long-run implications of reduced federal spending are slower technological progress and, sooner or later, slower growth.

Save the seed corn!



JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman