Science — is it time to redefine the endless frontier?

In the wake of the devastation wrought by the Second World War, the leaders of the United States began to reassess our country’s position in the world and our need for a more resilient national security policy. Science and technology was a key factor in winning the war, but it was clear at the end that the U.S. had harvested much of the knowledge we used to win primarily from Europe. This realization drove the development of a new vision for the role of science in this country, a sort of social compact for science. Dr. Vannevar Bush wrote eloquently in his report, “Science — The Endless Frontier” to President Roosevelt in November of 1945,

“Progress in the war against disease depends upon a flow of new scientific knowledge. New products, new industries, and more jobs require continuous additions to knowledge of the laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge to practical purposes. Similarly, our defense against aggression demands new knowledge so that we can develop new and improved weapons. This essential, new knowledge can be obtained only through basic scientific research.”

This moment defined the generations of progress that followed in this country and established the foundation upon which the world’s post-war prosperity was built. This was a social compact between the federally-funded scientific community within the U.S. and its taxpayers, and it drove decade after decade of discovery, feeding into real-world results that improved the lives of every citizen in the United States. We understood that while basic science may take decades to unfold ultimately we do this for the public good. During this 70+ year experiment, we saw basic research mature into the applications and engineering that allowed an American to walk on the moon, that drove the extension of life for the average American by over a decade, that eradicated polio and ultimately allowed the development of cell phones, the global positioning system (or GPS), and the internet helping us to communicate, navigate, and understand the world in fundamentally new ways.

Today, though, we find ourselves responding to a demand for a reprioritization from the public with whom this social compact was made and who funded this tremendous growth in science and technology capability with their tax dollars. Many of the trends that existed in 1945 have changed — contributions of industrial and philanthropic funding have altered, the population has more than doubled, science and technology capability has proliferated globally and the U.S. has both risen to a preeminent position in the technology landscape of the world and finds that lead fast shrinking.

This demand for reprioritization can be seen as a wave or growth of ‘anti-science’ attitudes.

The initial response from the scientific community has been one of surprise, a seeming belief that this shift in support and attitudes is the result of a lack of communication by our scientists and engineers, and that if people better understood how important science is to the future overall wellbeing of the country, this would not be happening. Instead of solely embracing this idea of a communication breakdown between scientists and the tax-paying public, let’s consider a few other possibilities as the driving force behind this new and challenging shift in attitudes.

When I speak on this topic to people outside the rather isolated world of science and science policy, many hear a condescending dismissal of their real concerns about the priorities of a very distant, seemingly removed federal government. They often understand the value of science, but simply disagree that it is the most important priority. They look around their communities and see crumbling schools, pothole riddled streets, declining support for social and mental health services, declining state funding to Universities and skyrocketing tuitions, and declining trust in the reliability of utilities like water and power. When they consider the importance of these things for a strong, bright future for their children, they see science as only one small piece that must be considered.

Second, we in the scientific community often present ourselves as completely objective, without bias, and somehow above the emotional and political discourse of the world. This can never really be true. As questions for research are chosen, data collected, and statistical analyses run, uncertainty and bias will always be embedded in the outcome and therefore the discussion. In our desire to help non-scientists understand our results, the community and the media often choose to represent the information with more certainty than is realistic, or choose an illustrative example study that has a definitive outcome, while not communicating the complexity of the full body of knowledge. As we do this, and as the media reports on S&T more than ever before, this bias and uncertainty is exposed and traded on by those who benefit from a mistrust of science. This leads the public to believe that science, and by association facts, are not objective and this lessens trust which leads to a desire for more accountability and less unfettered support.

Finally, we have clouded what science means. By using this word interchangeably to refer to work as diverse as the development of a new app for your phone to the discovery of gravitational waves, the public no longer sees that basic research is quite different from technology development and industrial innovation. It becomes harder to justify why the government needs to be the source of funding if this work may happen anyway.

In order to engage in a meaningful discussion — not a one-way communication of the importance of science — we must not only talk, we must also listen. Let’s go back to first principles and understand the model of our time. Let’s lay out and compare the current economic, medical, and security challenges, along with the condition of our overall Federal and State budgets. Let’s acknowledge the very changed standing of the U.S. within the global S&T landscape and understand the characteristics of that landscape. Let’s reassess our education pipeline — a pipeline that supplies talent and ideas to our technical economy — and the unaffordable cost for many of that education system. And let’s understand our current political climate, the significant political shift since 1945 from federalism, or a more locally-based approach to governance, to a more centralized, top-down governance and the current signs of momentum away from this top down system.

In 1945, Dr. Vannevar Bush layed out the model of his time — it is time we do the same. Let’s shed our emotional attachment to the approaches that led to an incredibly successful past and develop the approaches and knowledge that will serve our nation for an equally successful future. Let’s develop the next 70 year experiment.

As we move forward, while I believe we must keep communicating and explaining the value of evidence-based decision making, I also believe we must hold ourselves to our own values. It is time to look at the evidence, the data that the last 70+ years of experimenting with a federal commitment to science have produced, and to revisit our social compact. It is time to find the next Vannevar Bush. We must reconsider our value, our responsibility, and the best mechanisms for implementation in order to ensure the prosperity, health, and security of our great nation for the next 70 years.