Presidential Choice: It’s the science, stupid!

Forget the economy, healthcare, the war in Iraq.  For some, the next President of the United States will need to rise to a far higher bar:  Is he an e-mail junkie, or still stuck on snail mail?

John McCain’s lack of e-mail-savvy was the butt of recent Obama/Biden campaign ads.  “Things have changed in the last 26 years.  But McCain hasn’t” goes the refrain.  The subtext: if voted in as leader of the free world, could he actually lead in a technology-dependent society?  In contrast, Barack Obama’s online social networking campaign-orchestrated by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes-promises a truly plugged-in president.

Yet strip away the superficiality and there is something missing in both campaigns-where is the science that will support the technology needed to keep America great in the 21st century?

Don’t get me wrong, we desperately need new technologies to address some of the biggest challenges facing America and the world beyond. By the end of the next administration, there will be an estimated seven billion people on the planet, all wanting food, shelter, and water, and most of them striving
for a first-world quality of life.  With dwindling natural resources and an environment struggling to absorb humanity’s assaults, old technologies simply won’t hack it in the 21st century.   Energy security, curing cancer,  quality of life in old age, plentiful clean water, climate change-none of these challenges will be met without developing and using brand new technologies.

But technology innovation is only as good as the fuel that powers it, and that fuel is science.  Without strong investment in science, the technology innovation “well” will quite literally dry up-or move elsewhere.  In 2005, Representative  Frank Wolfe (R-VA) recalled asking a group of scientists how the U.S. is doing in science and innovation.  Forty percent said the country was in a “stall,” while nearly two thirds thought the nation was in decline.  This is not good news if we are looking to home-grown technologies to make the future a brighter, better place.

I say home-grown because in today’s knowledge economy you can be sure that if there is a gap in the idea market, someone will fill it.  The less America invests in the science that will drive technology innovation, the
more other countries will take the initiative.

Thomas Friedman writes in The World is Flat,  “Let me put this in very simple language: There are many more Indians and Chinese than there are Americans and a much, much higher percentage of them are studying science,  computer science and engineering.”  This is good news for global science-based technology innovation as a whole-as long as you don’t mind America becoming Asia’s sidekick.

Fortunately, America still has the edge in some areas of science-driven technology.  Advances in U.S.-led fields like nanotechnology and synthetic biology for instance are radically altering how we can use conventional science in unconventional ways.

But the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is closing rapidly.  Outmoded science policies, inadequate investment in science research and education, and a lack of respect for scientific evidence are all conspiring to weaken America’s scientific leadership.  In 2007 the National Academies’ Gathering Storm report concluded that unless the US government takes urgent action “We can expect to loose our privileged position” as world-leaders in science and technology.

This report addressed immediate steps “federal policymakers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community of the 21st century.” The resulting 20 recommendations covered increasing the nation’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and math education;  sustaining and strengthening basic research; making the U.S. the most attractive place in the world to do science; and ensuring America is the premier place in the world to innovate.

Many of the recommendations are still languishing in political limbo.

McCain’s “cyberphobia” and Obama’s tech-savvy make great headlines.  But at the end of the day, it is their commitment to strengthening the U.S. science enterprise that matters.  And whoever is installed in the Oval Office next January will need to have one of the most sophisticated science policies in recent times in order to underpin the technology-based solutions society so desperately needs.

To be honest, I’m unlikely to loose any sleep over the next president’s e-mail prowess. But I do care that they understand the importance of investing in building a science-savvy society, which can both generate and use new knowledge in the pursuit of a better world.

Technology innovation is essential to America’s success in the 21st century-that’s a given.  But before the technology, it’s the science,  stupid!

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