Tomorrow scientists and supporters of science around the world will march in support of science.  The march has been inspired, as have several others, by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.  To avoid the distraction of the reader trying to discern my views of Mr. Trump, I’ll get out of the way early that I did not vote for him nor do I like his conduct as president or the direction in which he says he wishes to move the country.  If you have shared communication with me since November this can hardly come as a surprise.  However, this piece is not, at least directly, about Mr. Trump. It is, instead a broader look at what we, both as Americans and the world writ large, get from the robust scientific institutions we have established over the last 75 years and what reduction of that support will mean.

That is to say, it is absolutely appropriate for American citizens to discuss how much money the United States spends on science.  But we should not have that discussion assuming the results of low funding will be the same as those we get with high funding.  To establish that, it is important to look back at history a bit.  I hope you’ll read through the piece regardless of your views of President Trump and government funding.

I most likely have some readers from outside the United States as well.  I’ll say explicitly the thing that may irritate those readers: My thesis is that during the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, the United States is home to the most accomplished scientists and scientific institutions on the planet and is the envy of scientists around the world.  I think this an unassailable position.  This piece is written from that thesis.  I mean no offense to scientists working outside the United States, a number of whom are friends and many more of whom I admire. I hope to justify my view and show that it is not the quality of individual scientists that gives the United States our position but that it is our collective action.  If you’re from outside the United States I hope you, too, will read to the end.  But note that the essay is written explicitly from an American point of view.

The fact that American science leads the world makes many Americans believe that Americans are, inherently, better scientists than their counterparts from other nations.

This is clearly not the case.

I have met and worked with scientists from around the world who are the equal, if not superior, of the best American scientists.  What pushes American science to the top is that we spend more money than anyone else.  We have invested, heavily, in scientific institutions that have attracted some of the best minds in the world to come to our country and make it their home.  Thus, you will find most scientists have a very favorable view of immigration into the United States.  We have met and worked alongside many fine individuals who looked out at the planet and decided that the United States is where they most want to be and who, when they arrived, worked hard, did excellent science and made our country stronger.

They did not do this because Americans are exceptionally nice or because working in American science is a cushy job.  They did it because the United States has, for a long time now, until recently, valued scientists and scientific work.

It has not always been thus.  In 1860, the first international chemistry conference was held in Karlsruhe, Germany.  It was a badly needed conference.  There were no good rules governing how to name or represent simple chemicals.  Chemists did not agree on such basic conventions as atomic weights.  Out of the conference came consensus in nomenclature and a framework of atomic weights that led, in short order, to the elucidation of the periodic table which had enormous impact in moving chemistry from a field of skilled artisans to a science with a solid theoretical foundation.

There were zero Americans at Karlsruhe.

What there were at the congress, in abundance, were Britons and Germans.  The two nations engaged in a scientific rivalry over the last decades of the 19th century and opening of the 20th.  It was an even and productive rivalry.  Little funding came from the governments in the 19th century.  Scientists either funded themselves – there is a reason so many famous early scientists were very rich men – or found patrons.  In general, the greater the funding, the better the science.  Germany and Britain were richer than other nations and they spent much of their wealth on science with profound, long-reaching results for humanity.

A century before, Frenchman Antoine Lavosier made many exceptional contributions to chemistry.  He crushed the phlogiston theory and gave us the law of conservation of mass.  He was able to find the law of conservation of mass by designing and building the most accurate balances of his time.  Lavosier’s balances are approximately as accurate as a routine lab balance of today, an amazing achievement for the time.  But no matter how great his design or intellect, had he not the money to fund construction of those balances, he would not have arrived at the law of conservation of mass.

Kings and emperors (that is, government) had always been big patrons of science.  This was especially true in the development of the Royal Societies in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries.  The German government, recognizing their pre-eminence in science and the advantages they thus obtained increased funding dramatically in the lead up to World War I with concomitant results.

Companies, as well, saw the advantages for funding science, including basic research.  BASF, in Germany, partnered with Fritz Haber, a professor at the University of Karlsruhe who received government funding.  Haber had found a method for converting molecular nitrogen to ammonia which could be oxidized to ammonium nitrate and used for food.  That is, Haber found how to turn air into food.  Karl Bosch, a BASF scientist, worked with Haber to make the process practical on an industrial scale.

I am a chemist, so I like to talk about the development of chemistry.  Of course, money is important in all areas of science.  Charles Darwin was a great thinker and his treatise on natural selection is a classic.  Yet, the observations that led him to his revolutionary conclusions took place on an epic voyage.  Funded by the crown, HMS Beagle sailed to South America with a primary mission of surveying.  Darwin was taken along because of the captain’s belief that having a naturalist onboard would be of great advantage. He likely had little idea just how advantageous it would be.  But without crown funding, Darwin likely retires a well-respected and surprisingly clever parson whose name would be known by no one living today.

General Electric hired a young chemist in 1908 to try to improve the vacuum in light bulbs and, thus, lengthen the bulb’s life.  Langmuir found, to the surprise of all, that rather than a better vacuum filling the bulb with an inert gas gave the best results.  Thus, GE gave Langmuir essentially free reign in the lab and reaped the rewards of one of America’s finest scientific careers.

While Langmuir had a brilliant career, including a Nobel Prize for his work on surface chemistry, GE, and other companies, recognized that they benefitted little from basic science.  The payoff from basic science is unpredictable and long-term.  Shareholders, rightly, view research in basic science as a poor investment.  GE made millions off the applied research of Langmuir and others and, eventually, companies shuttered basic research in favor of the more profitable applied research.  This is a perfectly reasonable position for companies.  Basic science research is a terrible short term investment.

However, basic science research is an absolutely vital long term need.  The United States evolved a system whereby the government funded basic science with companies taking the interesting new theories and discoveries from that research and working to apply it to practical new products.  The model has been incredibly successful.  However, citizens mostly see the end products and when they learn that as much as 90% of basic research never leads to a useful new product, think that that 90% of spending has been “wasted”.

This is the same argument that shareholders made to their companies.  But it is important to remember that without the basic science research, there is no foundation for the applied research years later.  Moreover, we don’t know, going in, which 90% of spending will be productive.  If you cut spending on basic research by 90%, 90% of your spending will still be “wasted”.  You’ll just have 90% less overall new products.  If you think that sounds frustrating, try being one of the many scientists who spends a career chasing down an idea in the 90% range.  The vast majority of scientists spend their time there and, yes, it’s frustrating as hell.  But we don’t go down those blind alleys because we like blind alleys.  We go because it is unknown and when one ventures into the unknown, one often comes to a dead-end.  Scientists are part of a team whose stars’ names go down in lights for all eternity while the names of the denizens of the blind alley are lost to history.  But without covering all the alleys, you will not find all the prizes.

I have spent some time trying to convince you of something you likely already believed: spending money is important in technological development.  You are likely already familiar with, perhaps, the two greatest technological triumphs of the United States: the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program.  In both cases, vast sums of money were spent with a clear goal.  This was applied science and engineering at its finest.  But, also, spun out of these programs were a huge number of ancillary discoveries made because the scientists involved did a fair bit of basic research as well.  For those who would like to “Make America Great Again” and who admire these two programs, it should be noted that taxes were much higher in the years leading up to Apollo and vastly, unimaginably higher during World War II.

In 2013, the highest tax rate, paid by married couples filing jointly, was 39.6% if their taxable income was above $446,000.  Keeping the values in 2013 dollars, the 1968 (year before we succeeded in landing on the moon) top rate was 70% if the couple made more than $1,300,000.  The couple who made $446,000 would have paid 55%.  In 1944, at the height of the Manhattan Project, the top rate was 94.6% (!) paid by couples earning more than $2,600,000.  Our $446,000 couple would have paid 70%.

Making America Great Again might cost some money.

This should by no means be taken as an argument for raising taxes.  I look at those 1944 numbers and cringe.  Clearly high taxes in a fight for survival is justifiable but I would never think of setting such rates in peacetime.  At the same time, most would agree that a couple making $446,000 is not in the same boat as one making $2.5 million.  They’re both doing fine, no doubt, but a few more brackets at the top wouldn’t kill us.  Didn’t kill us.  In fact, contributed to our two proudest moments.  What the numbers above do show is a clear statement that the two technological achievements of which the United States is most proud – things we did when we were “great” – cost a LOT of money and came at a time of relatively high taxes.

Coming out of World War II, the United States set up and/or started to seriously fund its science agencies.  And science boomed in the United States as it never really had anywhere else.  No longer was science limited to rich nobles or connected individuals who could find patrons but folks from all walks entered the laboratory.  Those of us who have had MRIs or like iPhones or enjoy eating safe food on a planet of 7 billion or enjoy a little warning about oncoming tornadoes or hurricanes or enjoy any of the other thousands of improvements in human life brought by science and technology should be happy such an investment in basic science was made.  The long vision of Americans and their leaders during the middle half of the 20th century will be noted for all time.  Little kids millennia from now will learn that some folks called “Americans” first walked on the moon.  They will likely know little else of us.

We may now think it wise to pare back our investment in basic science.  We’re comfortable, after all.  Scientists are now telling us that our use of the technology they, as a group, provided, may be causing terrible damage to our planet’s thermal controls and, well, that doesn’t sound like much fun. Maybe it’s time to ask the scientists to leave so we can enjoy the toys in peace.

This isn’t the first time scientists have told unpleasant truths and found resistance.  Germ theory was opposed by the populace for crying out loud.  Electricity was regarded as a tool of the devil in many circles.  The point is, opposition to unpleasant discoveries is common and easy.  Vaccines took a long time to find acceptance and their acceptance, despite their being why you didn’t die of smallpox as a child, is again in doubt.  Perhaps dislike of unpleasant truths is the reason Americans now seem poised to walk away from their preeminent position as the leaders of science in the world.  Perhaps you are considering making such a decision.

But, if you make that decision, make it an informed one.  Cutting basic science today is cutting applied technology development 30, 50, 100 years hence.  Or, more probably, ensuring that it is the Chinese, or the Indians, or the Brazilians or someone else who will make those developments and reap the material rewards that have given the United States the highest standard of living of any nation in the history of humans.  American scientists are very clever.  But we are not clever enough to lead the world in science without functioning laboratories.

We can see the result of increased American funding of science in the results of Nobel Prize winners.  Three Nobel categories are “hard” science (Chemistry, Physics and Physiology/Medicine).  Data for these winners are below:

 

Chemistry

Physics

Phys./Medicine

Total

Total Laureates

175

204

211

590

American

71

94

95

260

% American

40.6

46.1

45.0

44.0

Americans after 1940

68

87

87

242

Americans have done disproportionately well, amazingly, astoundingly, stupendously well, in Nobel Prize competition.  We’re much more pedestrian in Literature awards.  It doesn’t take much money to compete in Literature and the rest of the world does really well.  Americans win Literature prizes but they do so at a rate in proportion to our number.  Americans have won 44% of the prizes awarded in the three science disciplines.  Obviously, we do not make up 44% of the planet.  But that is in the ballpark of our share of spending on science. This also ignores the effect of immigration.  Exact figures are hard to come by sitting in an airport lounge but approximately 18% of American winners are immigrants. If our funding system didn’t bring them in, they’d either have won their prize for another country or we would all still be waiting for their discoveries.

The dominance of the United States becomes more apparent if we look at winners after 1945. No prizes were awarded from 1940-43 due to World War II and that is, roughly, when we started seriously spending on science.  It usually takes a bit for work to win a prize so we’ll make the end of the war the cutoff.  Only 7% of American Nobel Prize winners won their awards before 1946.   Nobel Prizes obviously don’t enrich a nation.  But the discoveries of Nobel winners, and all the other folks who do basic science, forms the basis for the development of new technology.  It simply wasn’t possible to decide in 1940 that “I want to build a small drone that can carry a camera and beam pictures back to me.”  The only way that happens is if thousands of people contribute little bits of knowledge over decades until we have enough to build the thing.  At that point, the product arrives at the market almost as if by magic from the point of view of the consumer.  But it was years of work, both basic and applied, that gave us that product. That process has been repeated in the United States thousands of times over the last 75 years.  The United States and the world are better off for it.  We are wealthier for it.

Perhaps none of the above moves you.  For many in the United States today, that wouldn’t surprise me.  We, all of us, have let too many partisan emotions enter the nooks and crannies of social structures that can’t support them.   So, if you’ll permit one last analogy, I will try to speak your language:

It is also clear that Americans have the finest military in the history of humans.  As with our scientific dominance, this is likewise not seriously debated.  Again, the reason for our dominance is mostly financial.  Our soldiers are brave, noble, fearsome and capable.  But so are the soldiers of many countries.  Humans know how to fight even better than they know how to be curious.  We simply overwhelm our foes with money.  If you have been opposed to cuts in defense spending, and many, many Americans are, why are you?   Presumably you think that cuts in defense spending will make our military weaker.  And you’re right, it will.  The question is, does it weaken us dangerously?  Answering that is the political question.

But if you think cuts to defense spending will weaken the military, it makes no sense for you to think cuts to science spending won’t weaken our science.  Again, perhaps that is what you wish and, if so, there is nothing I can write to change your mind.  We simply disagree and will have to tussle for votes.  But if you’re proud of American science, if you believe that scientific and technological development is important both for our economy and our well-being, then you can’t possibly be for cuts to our science budget.

American science leads the world.  That is good for our morale, our pride and our national security.  Voluntarily relinquishing that position is as insane as it would be to voluntarily relinquish our military dominance.  You may think scientists are simply nerds with their heads in the clouds.  And we are.  But it is in the clouds where dreams come true.  Don’t give up on what truly makes us great.  Don’t give up on science.

 

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