Scientific breakdown

Why has Europe succeeded where the U.S. failed? It values research, and funding reflects that

May 22, 2008|By Ed Meyer

Three hundred feet beneath France and Switzerland lies a machine that may soon wipe away the U.S. position as the world's leader in fundamental scientific research. The question is: Did that honor ever really belong to us in the first place?

This summer, a European scientific group will flip the switch on the Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful atom-smasher. Seventeen miles in circumference, it collides counter-rotating beams of protons together and detects the showers of subatomic particles with precision detectors that are seven stories high. The protons make 11,245 laps around the 17-mile beam tube each second. Although the proton beam has a mass of only one ten-thousandth the mass of a grain of sand, it is moving so close to the speed of light that it has the energy of a 30,000-pound fighter jet moving at 500 mph. The control of the proton beam is so precise that the tube through which it travels is less than 3 inches in diameter.

The instrument, if it works as expected, could arguably be considered a magnum opus of humanity, one of the crowning achievements of our species.

But wait - didn't the U.S. undertake a similar project in the not-too-distant past? Yes. Construction on the world's most powerful atom-smasher began beneath the plains of Texas in 1991. The Superconducting Super Collider was to be housed in a tunnel 54 miles in circumference, and was expected to reveal many secrets relevant to the nature of the universe by re-creating the conditions immediately after the "Big Bang." In 1993, after $2 billion had been spent on buildings and 15 miles of the huge tunnel, Congress scrapped the project.

It wasn't an anomaly. Fast-forward to the present, and we find that the federal budget for fiscal year 2008 cut $94 million in funding for high-energy physics, and layoffs are expected at key national laboratories. This is sadly typical of the federal government's lack of commitment to scientific research in recent decades.

Americans are used to thinking of our nation as the world's scientific powerhouse, but the only reason the United States enjoyed that status is that Hitler and Mussolini chased so many great scientists out of Europe. From 1933 to 1941, about 100 top physicists emigrated from Europe to the United States. These physicists were not only instrumental in the success of the Manhattan Project, but they also stayed in the U.S. and filled positions at universities around the country. They produced thousands of physicists and drew more of Europe's top students for decades to come.

Consider the home countries of scientists who were awarded Nobel Prizes in physics. Before 1935, American scientists won a total of 21/2 prizes; virtually all the rest went to European scientists. Ten of the recipients were from Germany, and the rest were from France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland, along with one from India. From 1936 on, after the exodus of top scientists from Europe, the United States won all or part of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 45 of the 69 years it was awarded.

Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago; Hans Bethe at Cornell; Felix Bloch at Stanford; Emilio Segre at the University of California; John Von Neumann and Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton - this is a partial list of the scientific superstars whose emigration vaulted America to the top ranks of the research world. But the positive effect that this bounty of top scientists from Europe had on American science is fading fast. While many foreign students still come to the United States for college and graduate school, many are now choosing to return to their home countries rather than stay in the U.S.

Our nation is rapidly becoming the "muscle" of the planet, while Europe is regaining its status as the "brains." This regression will continue as long as we proceed to cut funding for fundamental scientific research while spending hundreds of billions of dollars on war.

To maintain our fragile status as a world leader in science, we have no choice but to place a higher value on fundamental scientific research - and back it up with funding. We can't rely on another mass influx of top foreign scientists, like the one that occurred in the 1930s, to bail us out.

Ed Meyer is a professor of physics at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. His e-mail is emeyer@bw.edu.

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