The State of Science in America

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Editor’s Note: In advance of President Obama’s State of the Union address next week, RCP is rolling out daily “state of” reports to better frame the issues he might discuss. The following is a transcript of how the editors of RealClearScience would deliver a "State of Science" address.

We are pleased to report that as we enter a new year, American research continues to dominate the world of science.

In 2012, the United States is projected to spend $436 billion on research and development. No other country on Earth comes close. Combined, the nations of Europe will spend $338 billion. China will spend $199 billion. If all the research money in the world were put in a giant pot, about a third would be filled with money from the United States.

Despite the frequently expressed perception that the U.S. is declining in the world, in reality our scientists continue to perform the world's most cutting-edge research. Just this past year, an American shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for unraveling exquisite details about the immune system. Three Americans were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for overturning conventional wisdom about the fundamental nature of our universe.

For what it's worth, two Americans were even awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

U.S. researchers continue to publish more papers than their foreign colleagues in the most influential science journals. And 31 of the top 100 universities in the world are found in the United States.

If we continue to put forth the type of effort displayed in the 20th century, then the 21st century will again be an American century.

But, we have a lot of work to do, and many challenges to overcome.

First among them is the continuing economic crisis that has plagued the world for the past several years. As a result, we have entered a new age of austerity. Most nations, including our own, have tightened their belts as red ink flows and government coffers run dry. The United States is under tremendous pressure to reduce its national debt and cut federal spending. Unfortunately, that means science funding may not be as plentiful as in years past. Therefore, scientists must learn how to do more with less -- by prioritizing their research and adjusting their budgets accordingly.

Second, this past summer marked the end of NASA's 30-year space shuttle program. The United States -- the land of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin; the nation that won the space race; the country whose second "Manifest Destiny" was traveling to the moon -- must now hitch a ride with the Russians aboard their Soyuz spacecraft. It will not always be that way. We should fund NASA’s desire to send explorers to an asteroid by 2025 -- and onward to Mars by the 2030s.

The private sector also holds much promise for space travel. Entrepreneurs across the country are providing grand visions for American spaceflight. Naveen Jain wants to mine the moon. Richard Branson wants to pioneer space tourism. Elon Musk wants to put a man on Mars for less than $5 billion. And yes, Spaceport America is now officially open for business.

Third, our need for energy independence at home has never been greater. We are far too reliant on fossil fuels, an addiction that puts money in the pockets of our enemies and damages our planet. We should immediately invest federal money in the construction of new Generation III nuclear power plants, and we should vigorously fund research into Generation IV reactors. We should implement a small carbon tax to appropriately address the externality of carbon emissions, and we should use that money to fund basic research in clean energy.

Fourth, we must renew our focus on educating the youngest members of American society. A 2009 survey found that only 59 percent of adults knew that early humans did not co-exist with dinosaurs. While humorous, perhaps, it underscores the serious problems associated with a scientifically illiterate population.

Science literacy is much more than simply knowing trivial tidbits of information. It means being able to ask the right questions to find the best answers for the everyday problems and curiosities of life. It means being able to understand and scrutinize significant scientific studies. Most importantly, scientific literacy means being able to comprehend and make educated decisions about important science issues. We must not allow ourselves to be manipulated by ill-informed politicians and fringe activists who would otherwise hold back or misdirect technological progress on everything from genetic modification and pharmaceuticals to embryonic stem cells and vaccines.

Finally, we must recognize that science is a means to bridge the great divide that exists between the developed world and the developing one. Vast disparities persist in economic prosperity, life expectancy, quality of life, and basic personal freedoms. But one thing that binds us together -- all seven billion of us -- is science. Newton tells us that an apple thrown in Latin America will experience the same pull of gravity as one thrown in France. Astronomy tells us that a child in Africa can gaze skyward and see the same constellations as a child in Australia. Biology tells us that a Muslim in the Middle East has the same beating heart as a Christian in America.

Science connects and improves our lives, and it is a vital tool in developing nations. The World Bank says that 100 million jobs must be created in the developing world by 2020 in order to avoid a catastrophe. To prevent this, science and innovation must be unleashed in both the public and private sectors.

Even more importantly, science can contribute to the spread of democracy and freedom throughout the world. Repressive regimes usually seek to quash these grand aspirations, but as we saw throughout the Arab Spring, dreams can trump regimes. It’s no wonder that in the wake of Egypt’s revolution, science quickly began to germinate. Dreams were let loose. And with the generosity inherent in the American spirit, it is imperative for us to spread science to those in need.

In conclusion, the last century saw the United States emerge as the world's leading scientific innovator. If we continue to strive for a better future, we are confident that the wonders of American science will continue to benefit humanity for centuries to come.

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