Daniel Altman

Science Unfairness

The war on the pursuit of knowledge is starting to hurt America.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Who here doesn’t like science? Americans gape in wonder at pictures from the Mars rovers, dream of huge solar farms powering our homes, and get a creepy thrill from humanoid robots. Yet just at the moment when emerging economies are becoming scientific powerhouses, the United States is experiencing a vicious backlash against the pursuit of knowledge. Without a change of course, the once undisputed champion of research and development risks becoming a scientific and economic backwater.

The importance of science for innovation and growth seems self-evident, yet Americans are reluctant to put their tax dollars behind it. In a Pew Research Center poll in 2009, only 60 percent agreed that "government investment in research [was] essential for scientific progress." Last year, a poll by Research!America, a lobbying group for health-care research, found that a measly 24 percent of Americans strongly agreed that funding for scientific research should increase; 44 percent "somewhat" agreed. Americans do care more about medical research — they like things that keep them alive — but basic science in fields like physics and chemistry receives short shrift. And the news for education in the sciences is worse; in a Gallup poll from 2011, just 43 percent of parents said "not enough emphasis on math and science" was even a minor problem in their oldest children’s schools.

This is a shame. As Lant Pritchett, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has noted, the greatest innovations and achievements of humanity are not spontaneous miracles. They are built upon a pyramid of knowledge accumulated by the mundane and unglamorous work of thousands of anonymous practitioners. Isaac Newton famously said that he had seen further by standing "on the shoulders of giants"; today, he would stand on the shoulders of countless ordinary scientists whose research would not necessarily be funded by the private sector.

Though the animus against science has recently achieved a higher political profile, the American attitude is nothing new. As Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his Pulitzer-winning 1962 treatise, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Americans have always shown more appreciation for inventors than for scientists. The inventor was the plucky maverick who refused to accept the status quo and became a self-made millionaire personifying the American dream. The scientist, by contrast, remained an egghead in a white coat, stuck in an ivory tower and removed from the daily concerns of regular people. To illustrate, Hofstadter compared Thomas Edison, an American hero then as now, to Josiah Gibbs, unknown to most Americans despite being the father of both modern physical chemistry and vector calculus, a man whom Albert Einstein called "the greatest mind in American history."

Hofstadter detected a strong current of anti-intellectualism militating against pure science, and he was fairly sure about the causes. Religious Christians saw science as a substitute, not a complement, for the teachings of the Bible. He quoted Billy Graham, the evangelist, who said that society had "substituted reason, rationalism, mind culture, science worship, the working power of government, Freudianism, naturalism, humanism, behaviorism, positivism, materialism, and idealism" for the Bible, to the detriment of morality and the soul. These are a lot of isms, but surely several of them have been essential components of the innovations that have raised American living standards in the past half-century.

Hofstadter also remarked on the anti-science strains of American business culture, which heralded the accomplishments of an uneducated person much more than those of a college graduate. Today, as gaps in earnings and employment between people of differing education widen — the jobless rate for high school graduates is twice that for college graduates, who also earn 65 percent more  — the tension is still greater. It’s no surprise that some among the less educated should have a deep desire to believe education is superfluous to success.

For Hofstadter, McCarthyism — a movement that prized an odd combination of ignorance and certainty about the influence of communism — was the epitome of anti-intellectualism in the United States. Scientists and intellectuals whose high-minded debates and arcane professional pursuits were beyond the ken of much of the public were inherently suspect. Yet it was the achievement of a communist state, the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, that snapped America out of its anti-science stupor.

The United States didn’t necessarily become pro-intellectual, but it did embrace science in a foundational way, beginning to build Pritchett’s pyramid. Today, many of Pritchett’s ordinary scientists work outside the corporate sector, at universities and laboratories dependent on federal funding. Yet they have direct pipelines to America’s engines of economic growth through offices of patent lawyers and research assessors eager to monetize their work. The researcher at the top of the pyramid can channel his or her most important discoveries straight into the economy, but first we have to build the pyramid.

Right now, the pyramid is under threat. In the United States, the Republican Party has long been in thrall to the anti-science crusaders, having become, as Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana put it, the "party of stupid." Most recently, Tom Coburn, a Republican senator from Oklahoma, successfully passed an amendment to a stopgap budget bill that would cut off public funding for many forms of research in political science. This was a potentially counterproductive move at a time when even credit-rating agencies were punishing American bonds for Washington’s dysfunction; research might have helped to discover the structural causes of the dysfunction.

Even leaving the social sciences aside, the recent record of the United States has been disappointing. Obviously, the anti-science crusaders can do little about the voracious appetite for research in the private sector, but they have been successful in stalling public funding. As a share of GDP, funding for basic research has changed little since the 1980s, usually staying close to 0.2 percent. The share was actually higher in 1991 than it was in 2011, even taking into account the continuing boost from stimulus money. With the stimulus running out and automatic budget cuts taking hold, the share of the economy devoted to basic research will be lower still.

The opposite trend is occurring abroad. In the last decade, the Chinese government’s spending on science quadrupled, reaching more than $50 billion in 2010, or close to 0.9 percent of GDP. Overall spending in the United States — including basic research and applied research — was $65 billion.

Two years ago, President Barack Obama called this state of affairs a "Sputnik moment" that should shake the United States out of its dangerous complacency on science. Yet there is no signal coming from China or any other country that American science is falling behind. Rather, we are simply seeing slower increases in the productivity of our workers — two straight years of less than 1 percent growth in productivity for the first time since 1980 — and a greater dependence on technologies developed and manufactured overseas. Since 1989, imports of scientific, laboratory, and medical equipment have increased almost eight times over, while exports have risen only fivefold.

In the past few years, we’ve seen how a minority in the Congress could hold the nation hostage, damaging its economic prospects in the name of narrowly held principles. Even among a similarly small minority, the hostility to science may still be enough to push the United States into the minor leagues of innovation; the damage is already being done. In fact, we’re lucky that the first Sputnik moment happened at all.

CORRECTION: It turns out Billy Graham is alive. FP regrets the error.

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