Why science is good for America
Published May 24, 2004

First, a follow-up on my last column concerning hydrogen cars: a loyal reader forwarded me a copy of an article concerning cars powered by compressed air. Apparently this is not a new idea, and a little research reveals that there are some companies actually pursuing this concept. A French company called MDI cars is close to unveiling a functional model for sale in that country. Keep an eye out . . .

On to today's topic . . .

A recent report released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science warns that future Bush administration budgets--assuming that there is a future Bush administration--will cut research funding for many different scientific disciplines. Among the many others, these include physics, medicine, meteorology and energy research. Combined with recent changes to administration policy on funding grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), these budget changes paint a picture of the Bush White House as dangerously anti-science.

President Bush has proved that his administration finds scientific inquiry to be inconvenient at best. They have distorted results of research to fit their political agenda, and have cast a pall of right-wing political correctness over legitimate research being done in various health fields. For example, a CDC website detailing information on condom use to prevent HIV/AIDS was changed to raise doubt about the efficacy of condoms for that purpose; there is no scientific evidence to support this position, but it fits the administration's agenda to promote abstinence-only sex education programs. Public outrage was necessary to change another administration-influenced CDC report that egregiously linked breast cancer to abortion. These are only two examples among many available from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The report from the Association for the Advancement of Science, detailed in an April 23rd article in the New York Times, quotes the director of the association's budget program, Ken Koizumi, on the changes to the federal research budget. The money for research will be increasing, but only in domestic security, military and space exploration; large increases in these categories hide some steep declines in other areas. Koizumi's analysis of the federal budget shows a potential five-year drop of 21 percent for energy-supply research, 11.3 percent for agricultural research, nearly 16 percent for earth sciences (geology, etc.) and 15 percent for research budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency, potentially crippling that agency's ability to come up with meaningful future regulations.

A lot of people don't really understand science, nor what it can do for the average American, but it is a vital part of our progress in the world economy. Our competitive edge in all areas of human endeavor has been maintained by our excellent education system and a dedication to science at all levels of government. Of course, research has been promoted or suppressed for political reasons before, but the current assault on science seems unprecedented. It will certainly impact our standing on the world stage, sooner rather than later.

In truth, the results are already being felt. The New York Times reported on May 3rd that the U.S. is losing its edge in scientific research. Europe and Asia are increasingly dominating the scientific publishing arena, are earning more doctoral degrees and are receiving more patents for new technology than ever before. Though the U.S. still has the dominant share of these intellectual prizes, our lead is fading quickly. More troubling still, foreign-born scientists who used to stay and work in this country are increasingly likely to return to their native lands; similarly, some American-born scientists are seeking out more research-friendly opportunities abroad.

The fact is that technological leadership has driven the post-industrial American economy. Labor-heavy jobs have been largely outsourced to other nations, where assembly plants can operate with much lower costs per product. This is why you see so few products with the label "Made in the USA."

If we lose our tech edge, we may be losing a lot more than a few stuffy guys in white lab coats. We'll be losing the free-thinking ingenuity that has driven progress in this nation for two hundred years.