Needed: A sci­ence stim­u­lus

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - georgewill@wash­

New Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors should come down Capi­tol Hill to the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory, which dis­plays a de­vice that in 1849 was granted U.S. patent 6469. It en­abled a boat’s “draught of wa­ter to be read­ily less­ened” so it could “pass over bars, or through shal­low wa­ter.”

The paten­tee was from Sang­a­mon County, Ill. Across Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue, over the Com­merce Depart­ment’s north en­trance, are some words of the paten­tee, Abra­ham Lin­coln: THE PATENT SYS­TEM ADDED THE FUEL OF IN­TER­EST TO THE FIRE OF GE­NIUS Stok­ing that fire is, more than ever, a proper fed­eral func­tion, so the leg­is­la­tors should be given some read­ing mat­ter. One is Wil­liam Rosen’s book “ The Most Pow­er­ful Idea in the World,” a study of the cul­ture of in­ven­tion. An­other is the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences re­port “Ris­ing Above the Gath­er­ing Storm, Re­vis­ited,” an ad­den­dum to a 2005 re­port on de­clin­ing sup­port for sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing re­search.

Such re­search is what canals and roads once were — a pre­req­ui­site for long-term eco­nomic vi­tal­ity. The first Repub­li­can pres­i­dent revered Henry Clay, whose “Amer­i­can Sys­tem” stressed spend­ing on such “in­ter­nal im­prove­ments.” To­day, the pre­req­ui­sites for eco­nomic dy­namism are ideas. Deb­o­rah Wince-Smith of the Coun­cil on Com­pet­i­tive­ness says: “ Tal­ent will be the oil of the 21st cen­tury.” And the tal­ent that mat­ters most is the cream of the elite. The late No­bel lau­re­ate Julius Ax­el­rod said, “Ninety-nine per­cent of the dis­cov­er­ies are made by 1 per­cent of the sci­en­tists.”

With pop­ulism ram­pant, this is not a pro­pi­tious moment to de­fend elites, even sci­en­tific ones. Nev­er­the­less, the nation de­pends on nour­ish­ing them and the in­sti­tu­tions that sus­tain them.

U.S. un­der­grad­u­ate in­sti­tu­tions award 16 per­cent of their de­grees in the nat­u­ral sci­ences or en­gi­neer­ing; South Korea and China award 38 per­cent and 47 per­cent, re­spec­tively. Amer­ica ranks 27th among de­vel­oped na­tions in the pro­por­tion of stu­dents re­ceiv­ing un­der­grad­u­ate de­grees in sci­ence or en­gi­neer­ing.

Amer­ica has been con­sum­ing its seed corn: From 1970 to 1995, fed­eral sup­port for re­search in the phys­i­cal sci­ences, as a frac­tion of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, de­clined 54 per­cent; in en­gi­neer­ing, 51 per­cent. On a per-stu­dent ba­sis, state sup­port of pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties has de­clined for more than two decades and was at the low­est level in a quar­ter-cen­tury be­fore the cur­rent eco­nomic un­pleas­ant­ness. An­nual fed­eral spend­ing on math­e­mat­ics, the phys­i­cal sci­ences and en­gi­neer­ing now equals only the in­crease in health­care costs ev­ery nine weeks.

Repub­li­cans are rightly de­ter­mined to be econ­o­miz­ers. They must, how­ever, make dis­tinc­tions. Con­gres­sional con­ser­va­tives can demon­strate that skill by de­fend­ing re­search spend­ing that sus­tains col­lab­o­ra­tion among com­plex in­sti­tu­tions — cor­po­ra­tions’ re­search en­ti­ties and re­search uni­ver­si­ties. Re­search, in­clud­ing in the bi­o­log­i­cal sci­ences, that yields epoch-mak­ing ad­vances re­quires time hori­zons that of­ten are im­pos­si­ble for busi­nesses, with their in­escapable at­ten­tion to quar­terly re­sults.

An iconic con­ser­va­tive un­der­stood this. Mar­garet Thatcher, who stud­ied chem­istry as an Ox­ford un­der­grad­u­ate, said:

“Al­though ba­sic sci­ence can have colos­sal eco­nomic re­wards, they are to­tally un­pre­dictable. And there­fore the re­wards can­not be judged by im­me­di­ate re­sults. Nev­er­the­less, the value of[Michael] Fara­day’s work to­day must be higher than the cap­i­tal­iza­tion of all shares on the stock ex­change.”

The last Congress’s mis­be­got­ten stim­u­lus leg­is­la­tion — an in­dul­gent and in­co­her­ent jumble of pent-up po­lit­i­cal ap­petites — may have done large and last­ing dam­age by pro­vok­ing a com­pa­ra­bly in­dis­crim­i­nate re­ac­tion against fed­eral spend­ing. This will be dou­bly dan­ger­ous if a cur­dled pop­ulism, ea­ger to hum­ble elites, tar­gets a sphere of Amer­i­can supremacy and a ba­sis of its re­vival — its premier re­search uni­ver­si­ties. “Gath­er­ing Storm” says that be­cause of the re­cent re­ces­sion, many uni­ver­si­ties — dur­ing 2008 and 2009, en­dow­ments of pub­lic and pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions de­clined an av­er­age of 18.7 per­cent — “are in greater jeop­ardy than at any time in nearly a cen­tury.”

Granted, po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and aca­demic ob­scu­ran­tism in some dis­ci­plines — mostly the hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sci­ences — of some elite uni­ver­si­ties have dam­aged the pres­tige of the in­sti­tu­tions and ir­ri­tated sub­stan­tial por­tions of the pub­lic. But the pub­lic should not now be pun­ished by pe­nal­iz­ing, with di­min­ished fund­ing, the sci­en­tific dis­ci­plines that have been mostly in­no­cent of the be­hav­iors that have some­times made academia a sub­ject of satire.

Richard Levin, econ­o­mist and Yale’s pres­i­dent, asks: Would Ja­pan’s growth have lagged since 1990 “if Mi­crosoft, Netscape, Ap­ple and Google had been Ja­panese com­pa­nies”? Ja­pan’s fail­ure has been a fail­ure to in­no­vate. As “Gath­er­ing Storm” says: Mak­ing the govern­ment lean by cut­ting the most de­fen­si­ble— be­cause most pro­duc­tive — fed­eral spend­ing is akin to mak­ing an over­weight air­craft flight-wor­thy by re­mov­ing an en­gine.

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