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Running on fumes: U.S. must invest in new economies through support for education, research

In an effort to shore up the failing economy we’ve now seen the government pump hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into corporations in what is either the largest socialization of the free market or the largest raiding of the public trust in history, depending on your perspective.
This emergency response may stop the bleeding, but it does little to tackle a major cause:  inadequate investment in producing new economies as our old ones mature. As a result, we’re running on fumes and debt.
Where do those new economies come from? For the last 60 years they’ve come from a major investment in education and basic research. Science and technology are responsible for half of our economic growth since World War II. But while the United States once produced half of the world’s science and engineering PhDs, it’s now only producing 20 percent. And a 2005 Business Roundtable report projects that by 2010, 90 percent of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia. If that projection turns out to be even close, it represents a major shift in the underpinnings of the American economy.

What are our politicians doing about it? Despite a landmark report by the National Academies warning of a clear and present danger to the American economy, Congress failed to fund most of the America Competes Act. Our public investment in basic research is falling at the very time that other nations are ramping up. It’s a similar story in education. A recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th. 
Our most reliable economic engine
If we’re not embarrassed by these facts, we should be alarmed. The standard of living Americans enjoy today is the direct result of public investments in basic research and education a generation ago. They have been our most reliable economic engine. And yet in recent years we have failed to maintain that engine and to refill our tank. We now import $53 billion more in advanced technology products than we export, and that number is rising every year.
Some say the government just needs to pass more R & D tax credits and get out of the way. But it’s difficult or impossible for corporations to tackle this in today’s economy — you can’t justify carrying a decade or more of basic research on your balance sheet; you have to focus on applied research that you can turn into money in a three-year window. 
Compare that to the transistor, which produced a multi-trillion dollar computer and communications industry. Or the Internet, an obscure government network for scientists to share data. Or take E.W. Davis. Here’s a guy the University of Minnesota funded in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Giving him a lab at an astronomical cost of, let’s just say, $100,000 dollars a year. In today’s politics that would be called a boondoggle. What did Minnesota get for that ridiculous expense of taxpayer dollars?  Davis figured out how to take the waste rock of taconite and turn it into steel. To this day, 60 percent of the steel in every America car, ship, plane and bridge comes from Mesabi Range taconite in Northeastern Minnesota. What do you get? You get entire economies. 
No national competitor in science
America was founded by scientist-statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.  Science is a part of who we are. But since the fall of the Soviet Union we have lacked a national competitor in science, and research and education have suffered as a result. We’ve gotten spoiled, fat and lazy, and increasingly out of touch with reality. Our economy has shifted from making things to serving each other to finding increasingly complex ways to game the system and move paper. Lacking powerful emerging economies, we have taken on massive debt to fund ongoing spending; and a political class has risen that combines overconfidence with prideful ignorance and a disdain of science.
But in a world economy completely dominated by innovation in science and technology, this trend is dangerous. It should concern everyone that a proponent of teaching creationism in science class is an endorsed major-party candidate for vice president of the United States. The president doesn’t deal with school-board issues like the creationism-vs.-evolution debate, but the president can influence the discussion by setting the tone. The president needs to assert that while citizens can believe what they wish, it is inappropriate to use public money from taxpayers of all faiths to teach a religious doctrine as if it were fact. 
But more important than tax fairness, Gov. Sarah Palin’s views suggest a willingness to sacrifice the competitiveness of the nation for the benefit of religious ideology. This stance raises legitimate concerns about the ongoing integrity of American research and education, and thus our economic wellbeing. A scientific theory is the best, most rigorously tested explanation of reality that we have, based on all available evidence. It has been confirmed and reconfirmed by experiment after experiment. In the case of evolution, this reconfirmation has happened over and over for nearly 200 years. It is as scientifically strong a theory as the theory of gravity. Without it, we would not have modern biological science, genetics or medicine. So to teach students in science class that evolution is on par with religious creationism, that they are both “just theories,” is a craven disservice to students and to the nation’s ability to compete. Do we all need to know this?  No. But when people lack firsthand knowledge, they rely on authority figures to steer them truly. The president and vice president can and should set the standard of commonly agreed-upon reality for the good of the nation, and place country first, ahead of politics. As a vice-presidential nominee, Palin should repudiate her past anti-science stances.
Democrats are not immune to this problem either. The Democratic Congress failed to fund the America Competes Act last session, citing relatively minor funding disagreements with President Bush, leaving the future of American research hanging in the balance.
Leaders seem clueless about science’s role
This has always been the paradox of America. We are still the most scientifically advanced nation on earth, yet despite its profound impact on our economy, environment, health, education, national security and everyday lives, we regularly elect leaders who seem clueless about science’s role in our wellbeing and about the importance of objective reality in our decision-making. 

Perhaps it will all be OK. Perhaps we just happen to be living in one of the many cyclical times in American history when the forces of regression and retraction from knowledge are in ascendance. But the stakes are higher now than at any time since Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. There was only one change from his brilliant first draft: Benjamin Franklin suggested replacing “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” with “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”  
The American economy cannot continue to coast on the fumes of yesterday. We need to get a grip on reality, reengage our scientific engine and take control of our destiny, moving forward into a healthier world with renewed opportunity, freedom, hope and prosperity. That is what America is about, that is the promise of science, and science has always delivered for America. We’re fools to turn our backs on it, and that’s a truth that should be self-evident.
Minnesotan Shawn Lawrence Otto is a Hollywood screenwriter and a cofounder and CEO of, a nonpartisan citizens initiative to elevate science issues in the election, supported by the presidents of more than 100 leading American universities, dozens of Nobel laureates, major CEOs, and nearly every major American science and engineering organization. You can read Obama and McCain’s answers to the 14 top science questions facing America here.

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