Losing it, in science

May 06, 2004

PERHAPS IT IS to be expected that as other nations develop, and invest their resources in scientific research, the United States will lose its dominance in discovery and innovation.

Cutting-edge research in the Pacific Rim and other parts of the world may actually benefit this country if it sparks the competitive juices, and sets off a new race for excellence in such vital fields as health, energy and the environment.

Yet some American scientists, engineers and business leaders worry that complacency may be blinding policy-makers to the signs of how quickly the United States is losing ground as an intellectual center, and that too many other Americans are indifferent to the danger that loss poses.

The issue is reflected to some degree in partisan sniping over the shift in priority for federal research dollars from basic science to military purposes and counterterrorism technology. But the declining status of scientific inquiry in our society seems much broader. The solution may require something as fundamental as igniting young minds with the thrill of discovery and rewarding those who ask further questions rather than simply accepting pat answers.

Signs of America's decline show up in prizes for scientific achievement and in papers published by professional journals. Increasingly, these distinctions are going to researchers from elsewhere. The New York Times reported this week that Asia is boosting its number of patents, even as American numbers are dropping. Similarly, Europe is outpacing the United States at awarding doctorates for science and engineering.

While painting an overall optimistic picture of the U.S. competitive posture, President Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger III, nonetheless acknowledged at a recent forum that America has grown too dependent on "imported intellectual talent" for advance work in science and engineering, and has been caught short by tougher visa restrictions imposed after the 9/11 attacks.

All these danger signs should serve as a wake-up call to reinvigorate America's focus on science in the way that the Soviet's Sputnik jump-started the U.S. space program, said Gregory P. Andorfer, executive director of the Maryland Science Center.

Mr. Bush's proposed manned mission to Mars, a PR stunt almost no one took seriously, won't do it. But a race to produce the technology that could free the world from its dependence on polluting and scarce fossils fuels just might.

First, though, we need to lure potential young scientists away from television and video games. That will be the hard part.

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