U.S. science policy needs to heed global realities
I have just returned from Singapore
and Shanghai, where I visited life science
research sites at universities, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and Singapore’s
Biopolis. These institutions, and the government support behind them, invite
complex reflections on the situation in the United States.
States is home to academic, commercial and
government research institutions that remain the envy of the world. The total U.S. investment
in research is very large compared with other countries. For example, the National
Institutes of Health budget exceeds $29 billion; the National Science
Foundation budget is more than $6 billion. Moreover, the United States
has a strong tradition of philanthropy for biomedical research by universities
and hospitals, and a venture capital community that helps move research into
the commercial arena.
In addition, U.S.–based life science–related industries have
very large investments in research and development. U.S. universities and hospitals are
among world leaders in papers, citations and patents. In aggregate, the United States
has the greatest laboratory infrastructure and intellectual critical mass in
the sciences and engineering in the world.
Why then a feeling of disquiet on returning home?
A major difference between the United
States and Singapore
is the rapid growth rates in these countries, inspiring optimism. In all Singapore’s
science sectors, and especially Shanghai’s industrial sector, there is a
palpable sense that infrastructure and funding will be available, and that what
is limiting are talented people and ideas. Such people are being actively
recruited as governments attempt to build modern knowledge-based economies.
A marker of the sense of scientific opportunity in Singapore
and China is the migration of mid-career scientists from the United States, England
and Australia to Singapore, and the return of talented Chinese scientists who
had been educated in the United States to permanent research positions in China.
Their return resulted from the perception of greater opportunity.
In The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman describes
globalization based in part on the growing ability of information and capital
to move freely across the world. Human beings seeking opportunity are clearly
not as free to move about the globe as money seeking investments. Humans are
sticky. They are connected to communities; they may have working spouses and
children well ensconced in schools. Still, many scientists will uproot
themselves based on the availability of infrastructure, intellectual
communities, funding and freedom to do the work for which they were trained. Singapore
and China provide these ingredients to attract talented individuals.
I am an internationalist; I very much want to see science
thrive wherever it may and for its benefits to be spread to all populations. At
the same time, I live in the United States and am concerned about our ability
to generate knowledge, new treatments and good jobs in a “flat” world that
appreciates the advantages created by the conjunction of universities,
hospitals and industry with a growing research infrastructure.
Is the problem for the United States simply that its
scientific and engineering research enterprises are large and mature, making
growth and change difficult? From my vantage, having directed an NIH institute
(NIMH, 1996–2001) and now serving as provost of a large research university, I
do not believe that the U.S. scientific enterprise has reached an
asymptote—rather that it is suffering from shortsighted public policy. In recent
years a relatively flat NIH budget has lost buying power against inflation. It
remains difficult for graduate students and scientists from abroad to obtain
visas to study or work in the United
States. Limits on federal funding of stem
cell research represent high financial and administrative hurdles to a
promising avenue of discovery, and create just the sort of barrier that causes
important research to move offshore.
Of course, the federal budget deficit is deep, and the
country has many claims on its tax revenues. No one doubts the need for
security measures at the border, and my concerns about limits on stem cell
research are not a call for an ethical free-for-all. That said, it is much to
be hoped that the next president of the United States will recognize the
benefits of a healthy scientific enterprise. Ideally the new administration
will craft policies to produce steady growth in federal research budgets, more
welcoming immigration policies for foreign scientists and respect for science.
Without such policies, many of our most talented students will gravitate to
endeavors other than science, and Americans will increasingly read of
breakthroughs coming from other shores.
Steven Hyman is provost at Harvard University and former
director of the National Institute of Mental Health.