Make American Science Great Again

By | March 26, 2017

No science funding? Sad!


President Trump recently released his first budget proposal, which would go into effect in 2018. This budget proposal contains major funding cuts to science, significantly increasing military funding while drastically cutting the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute of Health, Department of Energy, and numerous other scientific agencies. While the outcry against these cuts from the scientific community has been unanimous, it’s easy to forget the specific reasons why cutting science funding is such a bad idea. Typically, when we talk about the benefits of research, we discuss them in terms of the material benefits that are received (better medicine, computers, etc.) or from a purely esoteric perspective (science for science’s sake). What people often forget is that the United States’ dominance in science has played a major role in shaping contemporary United States geopolitical advantages.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has led the restructuring of the international order and been a leader on the geopolitical stage. The Allies’ victory in WWII was in large part due to the United States’ scientific expertise and discoveries: penicillin saved countless lives, radar and sonar improvements were critical to air and naval victories, and the Manhattan Project was crucial towards ending the war. President Roosevelt understood the key role that science and research played in the Allied war effort and in 1944 instructed Vannevar Bush, the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, to develop a scientific strategy for the post-war United States. What resulted was the publication of “Science – The Endless Frontier”, a document dictating the necessity of federally funded basic research, and the birth of the National Science Foundation.

Vannevar Bush realized that the most important scientific discoveries originated from long-term funding of basic research, often without an application in sight. Because of the meandering path that basic science often takes, stable government funding is necessary to enable long-term projects and research that is not financially motivated. Industry funding is often dictated by profit cycles and seeks to create a product or a process that can be used to generate profit. Academic funding is more far-sighted and relies on discoveries coming not from single projects, but the culmination of many findings that lead to progress. Constant funding allows researchers to pursue topics that are not flashy and with no direct market application, but which serve as a foundation for future research and to larger discoveries. Federal funding promotes science for the public good, instead of for one company’s profit.

Under the plan put forward by Bush and the leadership of the National Science Foundation, the United States successfully propelled its economy by translating numerous wartime discoveries into civilian uses. This included the application of nuclear technology into power plants, converting early computing technology from code breaking machines into computers, significant advances in airplane technologies, and the widespread civilian use of penicillin. These dominant technologies of the 20th century all originated from research that was funded by the federal government or given a significant boost when applied to the military.

The United States’ focus on science and science education also played a crucial role during the Cold War. In fact, the Cold War may best be described as a battle for global domination through the creation of better military technologies, something highlighted by the space race. Just as military technologies trickled down to civilians after WWII, the space race resulted in many new technologies that percolated into public use, including new materials developed for space travel, satellite technologies, GPS, and breakthroughs in artificial limbs.

The end of the Cold War solidified the United States’ position as the only remaining superpower. However, if our leaders want to maintain American hegemony, it is crucial that they remember the role that science played in the United States’ rise to power.

The United States has continued to dominate most scientific fields, but the tides are turning. Federal funding for science peaked in the early 1960s, and has been decreasing ever since. In 2004, the United States spent 4-times as much on research and development as any other nation, but by 2014, the United States was spending less than 1.5-times that of China on research and development. With the discovery of CRISPR and its application in eukaryotic cells, we are quickly entering the age of gene therapy and synthetic biology, an area where China may already be ahead. Scientists in China were the first to use CRISPR to edit non-viable human embryos, to create genetically modified dogs, and to use CRISPR modified cells in the treatment of lung cancer in human patients (the US will start CRISPR clinical trials soon).

CRISPR and synthetic biology will likely be the 21st centuries’ space race, one that the United States will lose without increased federal funding. This race is not just about being “first,” but about the numerous economic and geopolitical benefits that come with pioneering a technology. Synthetic biology is expected to be an 11.4 billion dollar market by 2021, with likely meteoric increases to follow. Moreover, by not being a global leader in the field, the United States will play a smaller role in the regulation of synthetic biology technologies.

By being the first to develop atomic weapons, the United States has been able to spend the past 70 years regulating nuclear technology in a way that is beneficial to its interests. With the development of the internet in the 1980s (funded by the National Science Foundation), the United States created, and maintained control of, the most significant informational and economic technology in human history. Synthetic biology technologies have the potential to be as important, if not more so, than nuclear and internet technology for state power. Losing the opportunity to be at the forefront of these technological advances and their regulation would deal a huge blow to the United States’ global power.

It is obvious that President Trump does not understand the importance of science in the development of the United States’ power and Making America Great Again. Despite Trump’s signing of the NASA Transition Authorization Act, promising $19.5 billion in funding for a manned mission to Mars, he has proposed drastic cuts to all other research areas, which will weaken and endanger the United States. While research on space technologies remains important, it is not the only arena where the United States should invest in research and development. President Trump is proposing expansions in defense funding, spending that ostensibly increases the country’s safety, while simultaneously proposing cuts to science funding in the name of fiscal conservatism. This will not make the United States more secure. The rise of the United States, both militarily and economically, was not due to pure investment in military technology but to the benefits that federally funded research brought to both civilian and military objectives.

President Trump’s rhetoric is imbued with American exceptionalism, “America First,” and the need to increase our defense capabilities, but cutting funding for research on technologies that will define the 21st century is not the way to secure the United States’ power. If President Trump truly wants to foster the political and economic power of the United States, he should spearhead increased funding across all scientific disciplines. Amid party politics and political messaging, our leaders have forgotten how important scientific research is to the country, benefitting United States citizens in the realms of defense, the economy, and the United States’ global power. President Trump is proposing cuts to science funding, and either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that the ramifications of this will put America last.


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