My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share an expanded version of my essay lamenting the decline of American support for science.
It is a peculiar moment to be a scientist in America.
For decades, the United States of America has not only been the world’s leader in advancing the frontiers of scientific discovery, it has also been a powerful beacon attracting scientists and students seeking enlightenment through science from the far corners of the world.
That beacon was set alight by a whole generation of scientific geniuses, some born here, many migrating over from Europe escaping the great wars of the 20th century. It burned especially bright in the decades following World War II when America donned the mantle, not only of the political and economic leader of the free world, but also its scientific and cultural leader. It set the stage for unprecedented social progress and economic development driven by America’s investments in its universities.
That beacon is what brought me to these shores, just another graduate student among the countless immigrants streaming into the nation thirsting for higher education in science, and a chance to participate in expanding that frontier of scientific discovery. Just another particle in the torrential brain-drain flowing out from nations across the world that America was happy to soak up and nourish and allow to flourish among its elite universities.
That beacon, alas, began to dim towards the end of the 20th century, and has been allowed dim even further in the first decades of this 21st century which was supposed to be the real era of science and technology enlightening a new age of progress in human history. This is an age which is fulfilling that promise in many ways, yet America, that leader which led us to this threshold, has faltered, and dropped the baton of scientific progress.
It was no accident that the beacon of science burned so strongly in America 50 years ago. It was an active choice by the American people, through their government, to fund science and technology, and higher education in general, that established America as the world’s leader. That depended, of course, on the relatively high levels of taxes collected by the government and invested back into the country’s physical, social, and cultural infrastructure as it recovered from the depths of first Great Depression to soar up into the astonishing heights reached by what’s been called the Greatest Generation in this country.
Yet, at the heights of that arc of progress, many Americans somehow decided—were persuaded by forces of a new endarkenment—that paying taxes, and investing in public goods was somehow inimical to the American drive for freedom from tyranny. Government of the people, by the people, for the people bizarrely became painted as a new tyranny that must be starved of taxes and drowned in a bathtub. It astonishes the world that these forces have succeeded in turning the US government lights off, quite literally this October, and starving higher education and science of the funding that made it the world’s leader.
This too, is no accident, this dimming of the beacon of science in the leader of the free world. For just as its universities and science laboratories defined this nation in the late 20th century, it has also been defined by what Isaac Asimov famously described as a constant thread of anti-intellectualism “winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”. That anti-intellectual strain flourished in the shadows even as the beacon of science and technology burned bright, and is now doing its best to douse the light in the name of freedom.
It is no accident, it may indeed be part of America’s self-contradictory DNA, that the land that attracted and nourished and became home to the largest number of Nobel Laureates in the sciences also has the highest proportion of people among developed nations who don’t accept the facts of biological evolution. That the nation with the largest number of climate scientists, and the most comprehensive coverage of weather on television with whole channels dedicated to it, is also home to the greatest number of climate change and global warming denialists.
It is no accident, therefore, that America has slipped from its position of the world’s leader even as its beacon has been doused and starved of the public funding which kept it burning brightly for so many decades. That other nations are picking up on this, and beginning to surge ahead, by following America’s earlier lead in investing in higher education and science and technology to fuel social and economic progress. That my own native country India has just sent an unmanned probe—rather cheaply and efficiently—to Mars at a time when even Neil de Grasse Tyson must keep lamenting at every opportunity the death by a thousand budget cuts being administered to NASA, that jewel in America’s scientific crown. As he asked: How much would you pay for the universe?
It is not too late for America to regain that lead, to relight the beacon, by renewing its commitment to invest in the public goods that made this country great. To rediscover its own heritage of how government is a force for good when allowed—nay, made—to invest in the public goods that brought the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people. That. one hopes, is one of the lessons to be learnt from the recent government shutdown, which hit particularly hard the enterprise of science in this once—and hopefully again—beacon of enlightenment for the world.
It sure is a peculiar time to be a scientist in America, but it doesn’t have to remain so.