Science has served as the source of U.S. innovation for decades; but it has recently been under attack with funding for basic science in the United States at a 40-year low.
In 1939, Abraham Flexner, founding director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, wrote the “Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” in which he argued that, “throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”
The challenge, Daniel Reed, University of Iowa vice president of research and economic development, said, is that it is impossible to predict at the time how useful a scientific theory or idea will be.
“Sometimes the lag of the understanding of the utility can be decades. But if you look historically at the impact of investing in answers to those basic questions, it has been truly profound,” Reed said.
Consider an iPhone — its technologies can be traced back to fundamental physics from the beginning in the 20th century. The Global Positioning System (GPS) relies on a combination of quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Underlying all of these innovations is basic scientific and engineering research — work that involved seeking answers to basic questions that had no obvious utility at the time — innovations that wouldn’t be possible without the Miracle Machine.
The Miracle Machine, simply put, is the practice of investment in basic science to drive innovation and the economy. The modern version of the Miracle Machine had its origins in the post-World War II era. Vannevar Bush, who had been appointed as the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development by President Franklin Roosevelt, wrote an influential memo in 1945 called Science, the Endless Frontier.
“Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task,” Bush wrote. “The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.”
Bush’s memo led to the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies.
“For most of the last 50 years, the rest of the world has looked at us with envy, and [some countries] have responded by aggressively building their own Miracle Machines,” Reed said.
Science, the economy and the budget
Recently countries like China and South Korea have been increasing their investment in scientific research and development. Worldwide, South Korea falls just behind Israel as the two countries that spend the most as a percentage of gross domestic product, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Canada significantly cut its science budget a decade ago, resulting in slow declines in innovation, economic output and students enrolled in science Ph.D. programs. Now the U.S. appears to be following suit. The federal government’s portion of funding for basic scientific research has fallen below 50 percent of research funding for the first time since World War II. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the government’s share represented about 70 percent of funding, according to data from the NSF.
The challenge in telling the story of the Miracle Machine is that the prospective story is difficult to communicate. The retrospective story is often more powerful — imagine life today without cell phones, life-saving treatments and other electronics and innovations; most of them resulted from basic science.
“It’s a leap of faith — you throw in some money and trust something amazing will happen,” Reed said.
Money spent on scientific research has more localized impacts, too.
The University of Iowa does over $550 million worth of externally funded research. This support comes from federal, state, nonprofits and a combination of other sources. That money has a local impact, driving part of the economy around Iowa City, as well as supporting local and national industries that provide equipment and supplies. The money also carries broader, long-term impacts, including attracting talented scientists and researchers from around the world, and maintaining the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.
“One of the things that has made the U.S. successful for the last 60 years has been that it is a net importer of intellectual talent. It has been a magnet to the best and brightest that the planet produces, providing a socioeconomic advantage for the country,” Reed said.
However, when societies experience socioeconomic stress, they tend to focus on the near term, pushing off longer-term goals to more profitable times, stirring political discussions about the role and importance of scientific research.
Science and politics
Among the many roles of scientists is to, as dispassionately as possible, lay out the facts so policymakers can make informed decisions. When scientists become too politically involved, people begin to lose trust in their ability to lay out those facts accurately. But science and politics often end up mixing.
“So many of the social issues that affect us are driven by scientific knowledge, and inevitably it becomes politicized, whether it is about debates of climate change or health care,” Reed said.
The March for Science, a collection of marches held on April 22 in Washington, D.C. and over 600 cities worldwide, was a controversial action in the scientific community. It was part of a non-partisan movement to celebrate the importance of science and call for evidence-based policy. However, some saw it as a political reaction to an opposing elected official, with critics saying the march might send a message to the public that scientists are driven by ideology more than by evidence.
“Nobody wants the suggestion, let alone the reality, of having scientific work tainted by one’s political inclinations,” said Amy Charles, co-organizer of the March for Science in Iowa City. “But the March for Science was something new. This was the recognition by scientists and people who care about science in the U.S. that we’ve arrived at a dangerous moment. We’re now 70 years away from the public’s perception of the scientist as a national hero, someone who wins the war, and in that time, a great deal of distrust of science has taken root.”
Charles said both scientists and nonscientists have been shocked by that distrust, and said she was glad that shock turned to protest instead of silence.
For some, the march marked a cultural shift in the scientific community.
“There are new conversations, however muted, about what kind of politics a respectable scientist can and ought to engage in, what’s at stake, how real the dangers are,” Charles said.
The March for Science, and the underlying political tensions, might carry a different meaning worldwide, where the United States has long been seen as a leader in scientific fields.
“Scientists abroad are doing science on a very small fraction of the money we do it on here, and they look with longing at our labs and the opportunities people have here to do science, to discover, to do really significant work,” Charles said.
The NSF and National Institutes of Health, among other organizations, give out tremendous amounts of money every year to support faculty, staff and students in the hopes that they are tomorrow’s scientific leaders.
“These institutions water scientific seeds liberally, support the most promising scholars they can find in the country,” Charles said. “It’s really a romantic act — the idea of ad astra, to the stars, that sense of untrammeled wonder and the sense that yes, of course we have to go discover.”
But it’s not just about the money.
“The money is important, but you have to step outside this country to get a sense of the scale of the optimism that represents—all that money, just for students—the trust and belief in science and our ability to discover and know,” Charles said. “It’s made this country very powerful. The threat to that optimism is being felt all over the world now. If the lights go out here, it goes dark all over the world.”
The United States is still a powerhouse and leader in the realm of science, but abandoning that leadership role may have serious ramifications worldwide.
“In the near-term for any society, it’s not absolutely required to invest in basic science. But the longer-term consequences of not doing so are profound,” Reed said.
When arguing in favor of funding, scientists should avoid an entitlement mentality, and instead help the public to see the benefits provided by science, by asking first, “How can I help you,” rather than simply asking for money, Reed said. Still, there are concerns about the impact of scientists advocating for continued support of basic research and where the line is between advocating for science and making a political statement.
The money funding science is part of the government’s discretionary budget — it’s not required spending, which makes it a tempting place to cut. And those cuts have been made at both the federal and state levels.
Earlier this year, President Trump proposed a budget that would have made large cuts to basic research. But in votes in September, members of the U.S. House of Representatives mostly rejected those cuts (although many agencies’ budgets would still shrink slightly or remain the same under the House version, and a finalized budget hasn’t yet passed Congress).
There are consequences for deciding not to invest in the scientific research that has helped the American economy move forward by constantly asking questions and searching for greater understanding.
“The law of scholarship in general, not just science, is to keep asking questions. Because the answers to those questions has enabled so many things that we take for granted now. And we have to keep telling this story,” Reed said.
Kasra Zarei is a freelance science writer. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 230.