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James M. Gentile

James M. Gentile

Posted: December 14, 2010 09:50 AM

The size of the national debt, combined with public pressure to bring federal spending under control, is creating talk of further cutting science funding -- especially funding for the National Science Foundation -- among other areas of U.S. government activity. But if Americans want jobs, science funding should be increased, not cut.

In the second half of the 20th century, well over 40 percent of U.S. prosperity was the result of scientific and technological advances, and science and technology continue to be the key to the jobs that so many Americans need. And yet U.S. leadership in science and technology is heading in the wrong direction.

According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the United States ranked sixth in 2009 in global innovation-based competitiveness and ranked 40th in the rate of change over the past decade. According to the European Commission, China has now replaced the United States as the world's leading high-technology exporter.

At a time when our competitors are increasing their commitment to science and technology, we need to do the same. "Virtually all competitor countries, including India, China, and Korea, are increasing investments in science and engineering research, development, and education," wrote Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recently in Science. "U.S. funding looks like it could be heading in the opposite direction."

One of the communications challenges for the sciences is that too often the nature of scientific research is easy to demagogue. The late U.S. Senator William Proxmire became nationally renowned for his Golden Fleece Awards, which often made fun of federal grants to odd-sounding research projects. He generated national attention for himself and had some fun but, in the process, undermined an essential truth of scientific research, which is that transformational discoveries -- the kind that can support entire economies -- often stem from exploring the ridiculous.

When Robert Goddard, now known as "the father of modern rocketry," first proposed in 1920 that rockets could escape the surface of the earth, he was ridiculed by none other than The New York Times. Even Charles Lindbergh publicly suggested that Goddard should devote his talents to more practical goals.

In part because the Smithsonian Institution was running out of funding for Goddard's research, the foundation that I now lead provided crucial funding in 1923 to support it. (The National Science Foundation would not be created until 1950.)

Seven years later, in 1930 at Roswell, New Mexico, Goddard fired a rocket to the height of 2000 feet. It attained a speed of 500 miles an hour. Where would American space leadership -- and our resulting superpower status -- have been if Goddard's ridiculous research had not been funded?

Similar demagoguery is arising again, but Americans should ask themselves: Do they want a good joke or a good job? Science will provide the job, all joking aside.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), America's second-oldest foundation, founded in 1912, and the first dedicated wholly to science.