Organized labor is rallying across the country in support of public employees' compensation. The question is: Will they join the scientists and also rally for federal funding of science? Will they, in other words, rally for the scientific innovation that supports both public-sector employees and private-sector jobs?
American prosperity in the 20th century was fueled by scientific and technological advances, and they're our best bet for the jobs of the future: high-tech, biotech, and green energy especially. And yet federal funding of science is in great jeopardy, even though the United States has lost more than 8.4 million jobs in the last five years.
The budget bill recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1) to fund the federal government for the rest of the 2011 budget year would significantly reduce spending for research and development in an effort to lower federal deficits. But will a reduction in American scientific leadership really reduce federal deficits?
In a recent editorial in Science, Raymond L. Orbach, a physicist and under secretary for science in the Department of Energy under President George W. Bush, warned that the bill would have a devastating effect on an array of critical scientific research. "Left intact," he writes, "the massive cuts in research contained in the bill... would effectively end America's legendary status as the leader of the worldwide scientific community, putting the United States at a distinct disadvantage when competing with other nations in the global marketplace."
The growth in that competition is well-documented, and American leadership in science and technology must be constantly reinforced. Even with Apple's unveiling of the iPad 2, and U.S. pre-eminence in tablet technology, American scientific and technological leadership overall must not be allowed to weaken. As The Economist wrote recently, "Japan's electronics companies once ... defined late-20th-century consumer technology. Sony introduced the transistor radio and the Walkman. Toshiba was first to mass-produce laptops... But the world changed and Japanese technology firms did not keep up."
It's especially important to support science and technology when jobs in the United States are in such short supply. According to the 2010 Legatum Prosperity Index, the United States ranks 86th in the world in optimism about job availability. 86th in the world, and yet we're reducing our commitment to scientific research. And that's a plan for job growth and deficit-reduction?
As Fareed Zakaria writes in Time,
...reducing funds for things like education, scientific research, air-traffic control, NASA, infrastructure and alternative energy will not produce much in savings, and it will hurt the economy's long-term growth. It would happen at the very moment that countries from Germany to South Korea to China are making large investments in education, science, technology and infrastructure. We are cutting investments and subsidizing consumption -- exactly the opposite of what are the main drivers of economic growth.
In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said, "Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became the home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer." And yet the United States cuts its funding for scientific research.
Science is not a special interest; it's a national interest. And it's time for organized labor -- as well as the business community -- to rally behind it.
Science is where the jobs are. The only question is where they will be located -- in the United States, or in China and South Korea?
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. The foundation is a leading advocate for the sciences and a major funder of scientific innovation and of research in America's colleges and universities.