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Old August 23rd, 2005, 10:48 PM
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Post The struggle over science - the decline of science and technology in the USA

In this BBC article the author talks about decline of science and technology in the USA.


The struggle over science

In his weekly opinion column, Harold Evans considers rising concern in the US over the Bush administration's hostility to science.

I used to get mad at the way it was left to America to bring to full fruition fine achievements by Britain's scientists, inventors and engineers. Take Alexander Fleming's penicillin, Frank Whittle's jet engine, Alan Turing's computer and Robert Watson Watt's radar.

All these breakthroughs found their fullest exploitation in the United States. Indeed, they all contributed to America's pre-eminence in science-based manufacturing and services. Think of the personal computer and wonder drugs, of the jumbo jetliner, video games and the pacemaker, the laser that counts your groceries and the laser, or the global positioning satellite, that tells you to turn left at the roundabout.

That is why there is furious bewilderment here in the universities and the higher levels of business at the chilly indifference - not to say hostility - of the Bush White House to science. Actually, I've seen a movie like this once before and I know how it ends.

When I was a science reporter in Britain in the 50s, it was a thrill to visit the centre of government research, the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, Middlesex. It was hallowed ground.

I was in the lab where Watson Watt did his breakthrough work on radar in time for the Royal Air Force to find the Luftwaffe in the invisible skies and win the Battle of Britain.

I stood in awe before that much-photographed early computer - the wall-length monster called ACE - designed in 1945 by the wartime code-breaker, Alan Turing. It was then the fastest in the world, spewing out instant answers to reams of calculations I was allowed to feed into its innards.


You would have thought that the National Physical Laboratory would be the darling of every British Government. Not so. I was invited to visit at that time because they were concerned the government did not fully appreciate that science in peace was as vital as science in war.

The researchers were doing what they could on a tiny budget and even that was about to be cut. Not just in the government, but in business and society, there was a general indifference to science and scientific education that seems odd today. The consequence of that inertia in government and lethargy in business was that the US came to dominate the computer industry, despite all the brilliant work of Turing at Manchester University and others at Ferranti.

The question now tormenting Americans - who don't have a natural aptitude for worry - is whether the same writing is on the wall for them. Vinton Cerf is one who thinks it is, and he is no ordinary hand-wringer.

He's the mathematician who is often referred to as the "father of the internet". From 1972 to 1986, he was one of the key people in the US Defense Department who made it possible for distant and different computers to exchange packets of information - and that's the foundation of the internet on top of which rides the world wide web today.

Nothing daunted, he is now working on the protocols for planet to planet communication. In short, he knows whereof he speaks. And Cerf has just emitted a cry of pain.

The Bush administration does not take kindly to anyone who has drawn a federal dollar being critical - and being critical moreover in the businessman's' bible, the Wall street Journal.

Talent pool

So it is brave of Cerf to risk future disfavour and inveigh against "the stewards of our national destiny" for cutting money from key areas of research in its 2006 budget. That's a recipe, says Cerf, for "irrelevance and decline."

The president's science adviser, John Marburger, concedes that the budget is "pretty close to flat" but stoutly maintains "we are not going backwards", pointing to an extra $733 million for research and development (R&D) funding. In fact, this is the first time in a decade that federal funding has failed to keep pace with inflation. And in the entrails of the complex budget - no one should go there alone - you find there is indeed less money in real terms for what's called basic research and less for Cerf's area of particular concern, computer science.

Funding university research for that has been falling through the first Bush term and is now about half what it was in 2001.

All told, anyway, America now ranks sixth in the world in the percentage of its wealth it spends on R&D. Yet the downward trend isn't solely the result of the parsimony of "the hick in the White House", as one motor mouth put it.

It is largely a reflection of rising educational standards around the world, so it's a comparative decline. In real terms, no single country can even come close to matching the US in the total scientific investment by government, corporations and foundations.

So what is there to worry about? Well, there are some facts Americans find hard to swallow after decades of striding the frontiers of science. Fewer of the Nobel prizes go to American scientists, down to about half from a peak in the 90s. Papers from Americans occupied 61% of published research in 1983, now the total is just under 29%.

'Freedom of inquiry'

It may not get better soon since a higher proportion of young Americans are opting for better paid law and medicine over science and engineering and visa restrictions on bright foreign students further dilute the talent pool. "The rest of the world is catching up," says John E. Jankowski, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation.

Since some of these trends have been developing on the watch of presidents from Reagan onwards, I sought a science policy health check from luminaries in the field.

Professor Neal Lane at Rice University was the science adviser reporting directly to President Clinton, but as a former director of the National Science Foundation he cannot be dismissed as partisan. Like others I spoke with, he is less concerned with the international league tables and the familiar salami processes of the budget, than the well-documented readiness of the Bush administration to manipulate and suppress scientific findings - manifestly to appease industrial interests and religious constituencies.

This is not just on global warming and stem cells, currently in the news, but on a whole range of issues - lead and mercury poisoning in children, women's health, birth control, safety standards for drinking water, forest management, air pollution and on and on.

"It's disturbing," Professor Lane told me. "This is the first time to the best of my knowledge through successive Republican and Democratic administrations, that the issue of scientific integrity has reared its head."

Of similar mind is Russell Train, an administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford. He says: "How radically we have moved away from regulation based on professional analysis of scientific data regulation controlled by the White House and driven by political considerations."

The White House denies such accusations and says it makes decisions based on the best available science.

But these two speak for what is now a considerable body of alarmed and angry scientists. For more than a year, the nationally well-regarded Union of Concerned Scientists - a non-partisan body - has been receiving hundreds of signatures backing the Union's call for regulatory and legislative action to restore scientific integrity to policy making. To date no fewer than 7,600 scientists have signed, including 49 Nobel Laureates. Perhaps another voice should be added to the clamour. "Science relies on freedom of inquiry, and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity - government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance..." Those are the words of President Bush in 1990 - George Herbert Walker, the father - not the son.
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