Why it doesn’t matter if America falls behind in Science

Earlier this year, an article in the New York Times argued that it doesn’t matter that the US is losing its edge in science and research. In fact, the country can save considerable money by letting other countries do the hard work. The article went on to explain how this can be viewed as outsourcing: let other, cheaper countries do the basic research, and try to turn that research into products in the US.

Really?

The article quoted research published by the National Academy of Sciences, and while I fully recognize that they know more about this topic, have thought more about this topic, and are no doubt considerably smarter, I’m skeptical.

There are two problems I see. The first is that just because other countries are picking up the slack doesn’t mean there isn’t slack. The second is that I’m not convinced that, in the long term, allowing all the best, most cutting-edge research to take place in other countries is really economically sound.

Being a Good Citizen

The article in question seems to imply that there is some amount of research, X, that needs to be done. If other countries are willing to do it, then no more is needed.

To make this concrete, as long as one new disease is cured, say, every five years, there’s simply no reason to invest any additional energy into curing diseases. That’s enough. And for people who have some other disease that hasn’t been cured, they can wait their turn.

The concept is most clear when it comes to disease, but I think the same argument applies everywhere else. Basic science is what gives us new technology, and technology has been humanity’s method of improving our quality of life since at least a few million years ago. Perhaps some people think quality of life is improving fast enough — or too fast, thank you — but I, at least, would like my Internet connection to be a bit faster now rather than later.

The fact that China, Taiwan, Singapore & co. are stepping up to the plate is not a reason for us to go on vacation.

Can We Really be Competitive as a Backwater?

The article casts “outsourcing” science as good business by noting that America is still the best at turning science into products. So let other countries do the expensive investment into research — we’ll just do the lucrative part that comes later.

Do they think other countries won’t catch on?

I have to imagine that Singapore and similar countries are investing in research because they want to make money. Which means they will want their share of the lucrative research-to-product business. So America’s business plan, then, would have to be to try to keep our advantage on that front while losing our advantage on basic research.

This may well be possible. But it has some challenges. It’s no accident that the neighborhood around MIT is packed with tech start-ups. I’m not a sociologist, but I can speculate on why that is. First, many of those tech start-ups are founded by MIT graduates. They aren’t necessarily Boston natives, but having been drawn to one of the world’s great research universities, they end up settling there.

Second, Flat World or not, there are advantages to being close to the action. Many non-scientists don’t realize that by the time “cutting-edge” research is published, it is often a year or even several years old. The way to stay truly current is to chat with the researchers over coffee about what they are doing right now, not about what they are writing right now.

Third, science benefits from community. Harvard’s biggest advantage, as far as I can tell, is the existence of MIT two miles down the road, and visa versa. Waxing poetic about the free exchange of ideas may sound a bit abstract, but it has a real impact. I have multiple opportunities each week to discuss my current projects with some of the best minds in the field, and I do better work for it.

In short, I think any country that maintains the world’s premier scientific community is going to have impressive structural advantages when it comes to converting ideas into money.

That Said…

That said, I think there are two really useful ideas that come out of that article. The first is the challenge against the orthodoxy that strong science = strong economy. Without challenges like these, we can’t home in on what exactly is important about funding basic research (not saying I’ve been successful here, but it is a start, at least). The second is that even if the US maintains its lead in science, that lead is going to shrink no matter what we do, so it’s important to think about how to capitalize on discoveries coming in from overseas.

Political Note

Those who are concerned about basic research in the US should note that while John McCain does not list science funding as a priority on his website — unless you count non-specific support of NASA — and did not mention it in his convention speech, Barack Obama did both (he supports doubling basic science funding).

Folks in Eastern Washington may be interested to know that a clinical psychologist is running for Congress against an incumbent. Though Mark Mays has been professionally more involved in treatment than in research, research is among his top priorities.

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