Basic research generates jobs and competitiveness

Trained as a mechanical engineer in India, Subra Suresh researched the interfaces between engineering, biology and materials science before becoming dean of engineering at MIT and, as of October, director of the U.S. National Science Foundation. In February in Washington, D.C., at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Suresh laid out his vision for the agency he now leads, which has a $7 billion portfolio for funding basic research. Science News contributing editor Alexandra Witze spoke with Suresh and compiled these comments from the interview and his lecture.

We can understand the world, ourselves included, and with that knowledge help resolve the major dilemmas facing society today.

What is the value of basic research in these tough economic times?
In her memoirs, former British prime minister Maggie Thatcher relates a story about a meeting between the formidable prime minister and statesman William Gladstone and the scientist Michael Faraday. When asked by Gladstone whether his research in electricity had any value, Faraday promptly replied: “Sir, one day you will tax it.” How right he was. Our globe is now wired in ways Faraday could not have envisioned, giving us first heat and light, then power to fuel new industries and now the ability to communicate at the speed of light around the globe. The economic benefits flowing from Faraday’s early experiments continue to provide returns. We now have an emerging industry based entirely on the smart grid; one estimate projects it will reach $34 billion worldwide by 2020.

Is the United States losing its competitive edge?
Other nations are investing heavily in science and engineering. The U.S. is not the world leader in terms of gross R&D expenditures relative to GDP.… U.S. students are not performing at the top of the charts in international math and science assessments. Foreign students who contribute significantly to the science and research enterprise at American universities and colleges have many more options to study and work in their home countries. These are all troubling signs.

Why should kids be inspired to go into science and technical fields?
Science and engineering are a ticket to prosperity. Look at rapidly growing economies like India and China. The middle class in India, in the last 17 years since India opened up economically, have moved up significantly — that’s 350 million people, most through the IT industry. Take a place like MIT; most of the students come from middle-class backgrounds. Those are two powerful examples.

Science and engineering are also a way to address complex societal problems: water, energy, environment, transportation, you name it. The young generation, because of the Internet and other media, are not only interested in producing the next gadget or the next product — they are also very interested in changing the world. Science and engineering are a vehicle to do that.

How are science and engineering jobs changing?
The number of scientists and engineers working for U.S. small businesses now nearly equals those working for large businesses, including the giants of American industry and technology. In fact, small businesses now employ more scientists and engineers than universities or government.

So what’s out there waiting to be discovered?
We can understand the world, ourselves included, and with that knowledge help resolve the major dilemmas facing society today. In fact, the potential for new knowledge has never been greater.

We now ask questions we could not formulate and seek solutions to even a mere five or 10 years ago. We have already crossed a threshold of a new scientific revolution, one initiating a new era of observation. Think of Galileo’s telescope or Leeuwenhoek’s microscope. They opened vistas which had never before been imagined and profoundly changed how humans viewed the universe and their place within it.

Today telescopes, from the hills of Hawaii to the plains of Chile to the ice fields of Antarctica, give us new visions of the solar system and far beyond, to new planets…. At the scale of geologic time, we can now read millennia of climate data in the Ant-arctic ice. Observations at the nanoscale advance our capability to design and build materials one atom or molecule at a time.

These are critical times for us to speak with one voice about the significance of our work so that our voice is heard and our contributions to American prosperity, and global prosperity, are fully understood.