By Neil deGrasse Tyson
A century ago Albert Einstein laid the theoretical foundation for the laser. Many will argue that all science should be practical, with tangible stated benefits to society. But history shows this posture to be frankly, naïve. When Einstein derived his equations, I’d bet neither he nor anyone else was thinking “Barcodes!” or “Lasik Surgery!” or “Rock Concerts!”
Consider the 1920s, when quantum physics was discovered. It was obscure and esoteric in its day, but now, there’s no creation, storage, or retrieval of digital information without an understanding of the quantum. By some measures, IT drives more than one third of the world’s GDP. Delay that research two decades, you might only now be getting your first email account. Cancel it altogether for being frivolous, and the AM radio continues as a major item of furniture in your living room.
Science has only one goal: to determine the world’s objective truths. Meanwhile, like anybody else, scientists are susceptible to bias that can distort one’s own observations and judgments. Self-aware, scientists specifically constructed methods and tools to minimize, if not remove entirely, the chance that a researcher thinks something is true that is not, or that something is not true that is. Furthermore, you’re famous overnight if you can show conclusively that someone else’s idea is wrong. Yes, the entire enterprise thrives on built-in, error-checking mechanisms.
This means scientific truths emerge by consensus — not of opinion, but of observations and measurements — rendering the research that falls outside of consensus the shakiest possible grounds on which to base policy. Politics is not a foundation on which you base your science. Science is a foundation on which you base your politics, lest you undermine a functioning, informed democracy.
In 1862 Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, understood this. A time when he clearly had other concerns, Lincoln creates the Land-grant university system, transforming education and agriculture in America. And in 1863 he creates the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), an independent, multidisciplinary group of researchers tasked with advising our government in all ways science matters to its needs.
With the help of Congress, the run of US presidents with enlightened scientific foresight through the 20th century crosses the left-right political aisle like an Alpine slalom skier:
In 1916 Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, creates the National Park Service, an idea championed by Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican.
In 1930 Herbert Hoover, a Republican, creates the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Harry S Truman, a Democrat, creates the the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950.
In 1958 Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, creates the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In 1962 John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, announces we’re going to explore the Moon. We do that, and discover Earth for the first time.
In 1970, with Mother Earth now on our radar, President Nixon, a Republican, creates the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and later that year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
In the mid 1990s, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, boosts R&D funding that enables an exponential growth of the internet, as tens of millions of Americans come on line.
The creation of the NSF deserves some exposition. It was inspired by the 1945 report Science: The Endless Frontier. Written by Truman’s science advisor Vannevar Bush, the report compellingly argues for government-funded science as a driver of our wealth, our health, and our security. He further notes, “A nation which depends on others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill.” Bush also observed, “In 1939 millions of people were employed in industries which did not even exist at the close of the last war.” America in the 20th century would become the world’s largest economy, leading in every important category of innovation and production.
Meanwhile, did you ever wonder who conducts science in America? From 1900 onwards, on average about 10% of Americans have been first-generation immigrants. Yet first-generation immigrants have won 33% of all American Nobel prizes in the sciences since the award began in 1900, representing thirty-five countries from six continents. So immigrants to America are three times more productive at winning Nobel prizes than population statistics would predict.
Do you prefer one branch of science over another because you think its discoveries will be more useful in coming years? Consider that in hospitals, every machine with an on/off switch that diagnoses your health without first cutting you open, is based on one or more principles of physics, discovered by physicists and chemists who had no specific interest in medicine. This includes the MRI, PET scans, CT Scans, EKGs, EEGs, ultrasound, and of course, good old fashioned X-rays. So if you defund one line of research in favor of another, you thwart the entire moving frontier of discovery. In the end, nature cross-pollinates all sciences, so perhaps we should too.
To reclaim America’s greatness, anyone with business acumen could think of science investments within our various government agencies as the R&D of a corporation called the USA. Science is not a Liberal Conspiracy. It’s not even bi-partisan. Science is a fundamentally non-partisan enterprise that serves us all. Without it, watch America fade from relevance on the world stage, as we gasp for an era of scientifically enlightened governance to rise once again.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural history. His latest book: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, will be released May 2 by W.W. Norton.