Politicians have a tendency to view science as a means to an end – for them it stands for technological innovation, a strong industrial economy and an ever-increasing standard of living. Sure, they support science in an abstract sense, but I get the impression many of the politicians making critical decisions on science policy and research and development investment probably couldn’t give a detailed explanation of the difference between an atom and a molecule.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., appears to be one of those politicians who is proud of American innovation in the high-tech industry but isn’t interested in actively supporting scientific progress in this country. He seems to understand science in terms of innovation that will spur growth in the private sector. That is, his support for science stems from purely economic considerations.
This isn’t a problem per se. To give credit where credit is due, Romney is absolutely right about opening up immigration to foreign students who graduate from American universities with advanced degrees in science and engineering. The fact Washington has been unable to pass this legislation despite overwhelming bipartisan support is flat-out embarrassing.
Still, I get the impression Romney approaches science as a scrutinizing investor – the only problem is science was never intended to be a profitable industry in terms of dollars and cents. Responding to a collection of science questions prepared by ScienceDebate.org and Scientific American, he said he would provide government resources to research programs developing “technologies with widespread application and potential to serve as the foundation for private sector innovation and commercialization.”
Personally, I think approaching science as nothing but a pathway to private sector innovation and commercialization is narrow-minded and misconstrues the government’s role in scientific research. If a research and development project is going be a commercial success in the private sector, it will probably have access to venture capital and won’t need government funding. The projects that need government funding are those with no imminent commercial value but which could potentially revolutionize daily life in years to come.
Romney’s go-to solution with regard to science and engineering is the private sector. He criticizes President Barack Obama for investing in green technology, and he seems to think science will grow best unregulated. He even advocates a hands-off approach to improving science and math education by giving students the option to choose their schools and providing incentives for teachers, and it’s no secret he approves of for-profit colleges. Romney’s assessment of educational policy in the U.S. blames teachers unions for inhibiting reform and proposes a free-market economic solution.
The notion that scientific and technological innovation will take off if Washington leaves funding for research to the private sector and gives students the option to choose their schools is both myopic and irresponsible.
With all of this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 68 Nobel Prize winners recently signed an endorsement of Obama, writing, “President Obama understands the key role science has played in building a prosperous America.”
I’m not here to campaign for Obama. But at least he understands the government can play an important role in the future of science and technology and has demonstrated this by committing government funding to research in green energy, medicine and a smart grid – all of which will be essential technologies in the 21st century. He’s also done an excellent job of collaborating with the scientific community by putting together a team of science advisers.
Furthermore, Obama realizes America’s ongoing problem with science and math education is a time-sensitive issue that demands a large-scale solution, which is going to have to come from public schools. Obama has taken steps toward this with proposals to invest in training science and math teachers.
I get the sense Obama has figured out that in the long run, America will be better off because of today’s investments in scientific research and education, and that’s why I see a brighter future for science and technology under his administration.
Charles Godfrey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in physics and math.