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.

The United 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 and China 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.