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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Larry Summers Issues an SOS

As in "Save Our Sciences":

America must not surrender its lead in life sciences, by Lawrence Summers, Commentary, Financial Times [free here]: The 20th century was shaped by developments in the physical sciences. ...[S]olid state physics ... allowed mankind to take flight and split the atom. Advances in … physics also led to the development of the transistor, the semiconductor and ultimately to the information technology explosion that transformed economic life. The 20th century was an American century in no small part because of American leadership in the application of the physical sciences...

[T]he 21st century will be defined by developments in the life sciences. Lifespans will rise sharply as cures are found for chronic diseases and healthcare will come to be a larger share of the economy than manufacturing. Life science approaches will lead to everything from further agricultural revolutions to profound changes in energy technology and the development of new materials. ...

It is natural to ask whether the US will lead in the life sciences ... as it did in the physical sciences... It is a profoundly important economic question, but one whose implications go far beyond... At present, ... the US is clearly leading in the life sciences. But past performance is no guarantee of future success. ... If America is to maintain its leadership in life sciences..., important steps must be taken.

Most abstract but most important, there needs to be respect for the scientific method and its results. In sharp distinction to … other industrial countries, there is an increasing move away from respecting the scientific method in US schools. Polls demonstrate that up to one-third of high school biology teachers have as much faith in intelligent design as in evolution …[and] that as many as 70 per cent of the American people agree with them. Matters are not helped when the president advocates the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution as a “different school of thought”.

Second, funding has to be a priority. During the past three years, when there has been more possible in the life sciences than there has ever been, when we are on the cusp of achieving important breakthroughs in everything from stem cells to the treatment of cancer, government funding for science research has been cut in real terms. This has been particularly hard on young researchers...

Funding, however, is ... also a matter of … compensation levels… In today’s economy a … graduate of a leading business school earns a substantially higher salary than a ... graduating ... PhD in biology. Several years after graduation the differences are even more pronounced. It should not be a surprise that ... more of our talented young people are not headed towards careers in … the life sciences.

Third, we need to control the role of politics in allocating science dollars, which are currently tossed around like so many political footballs. The fact that diseases that afflict the relatives of key congressional appropriators receive a disproportionate share of research dollars is not a step towards scientific progress. And it is not a step towards a healthier 21st century to allow the views of a vocal minority in effect to cut off funding for embryonic stem cell research – which is likely to lead to revolutions in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and cancer within the next generation.

Finally, we need to support clusters of extraordinary performance. If competition is individualistic, the US is going to have a very difficult time because salary levels … are going to be much lower in other parts of the world. Rather than focus on each individual …, the US needs to focus on fostering clusters of innovation – such as Silicon Valley in information technology, Boston in the life sciences, New York in finance – where each talented individual derives his or her strength from all that is around. Competing with that on price is much more difficult.

These are not issues that can be addressed in a year or even a presidential term. Nor are they issues that will have a large predictable impact over a period of several years. But over the long run, few issues are as important...

Update: In comments, dale says:

Save US superiority in the life sciences. Save US superiority in financial services. Why didn't we act to save US superiority in manufacturing? Why aren't ordinary Americans deserving of such centralized industrial planning projects?

Why would foreign dominance in the more intellectual and ethereal pursuits be worse for the US than the Chinese ascendancy in manufacturing (for example)? We are told by some economists that outsourcing and other aspects of economic globalization are good for Americans. But Summers and others now say we must save certain industries.

I suspect class bias is in play.

Is dale right, or is there some fundamental difference in the two industries that justifies a different level of government response (e.g. a market failure in research that is not present in manufacturing)?

    Posted by on Sunday, January 28, 2007 at 02:10 PM in Economics, Science | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (51)

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