Nation needs to promote ideas

January 3, 2011


— New Republican legislators should come down Capitol Hill to the National Museum of American History, which displays a device that in 1849 was granted U.S. patent 6469. It enabled a boat’s “draught of water to be readily lessened” so it could “pass over bars, or through shallow water.” The patentee was from Sangamon County, Ill. Across Constitution Avenue, over the Commerce Department’s north entrance, are some words of the patentee, Abraham Lincoln:




Stoking that fire is, more than ever, a proper federal function, so the legislators should be given some reading matter. One is William Rosen’s book “The Most Powerful Idea in the World,” a study of the culture of invention. Another is the National Academy of Sciences report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited,” an addendum to a 2005 report on declining support for science and engineering research.

Such research is what canals and roads once were — a prerequisite for long-term economic vitality. The first Republican president revered Henry Clay, whose “American System” stressed spending on such “internal improvements.” Today, the prerequisites for economic dynamism are ideas. Deborah Wince-Smith of the Council on Competitiveness says: “Talent will be the oil of the 21st century.” And the talent that matters most is the cream of the elite. The late Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod said, “Ninety-nine percent of the discoveries are made by 1 percent of the scientists.”

With populism rampant, this is not a propitious moment to defend elites, even scientific ones. Nevertheless, the nation depends on nourishing them and the institutions that sustain them.

U.S. undergraduate institutions award 16 percent of their degrees in the natural sciences or engineering; South Korea and China award 38 percent and 47 percent, respectively. America ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.

America has been consuming its seed corn: From 1970 to 1995, federal support for research in the physical sciences, as a fraction of GDP, declined 54 percent; in engineering, 51 percent. On a per-student basis, state support of public universities has declined for more than two decades and was at the lowest level in a quarter-century before the current economic unpleasantness. Annual federal spending on mathematics, the physical sciences and engineering now equals only the increase in health care costs every nine weeks.

Republicans are rightly determined to be economizers. They must, however, make distinctions. Congressional conservatives can demonstrate that skill by defending research spending that sustains collaboration among complex institutions — corporations’ research entities and research universities. Research, including in the biological sciences, that yields epoch-making advances requires time horizons that often are impossible for businesses, with their inescapable attention to quarterly results.

An iconic conservative understood this. Margaret Thatcher, who studied chemistry as an Oxford undergraduate, said:

“Although basic science can have colossal economic rewards, they are totally unpredictable. And therefore the rewards cannot be judged by immediate results. Nevertheless, the value of (Michael) Faraday’s work today must be higher than the capitalization of all shares on the stock exchange.”

The last Congress’ misbegotten stimulus legislation — an indulgent and incoherent jumble of pent-up political appetites — may have done large and lasting damage by provoking a comparably indiscriminate reaction against federal spending. This will be doubly dangerous if a curdled populism, eager to humble elites, targets a sphere of American supremacy and a basis of its revival — its premier research universities. “Gathering Storm” says that because of the recent recession, many universities — during 2008 and 2009, endowments of public and private institutions declined an average of 18.7 percent — “are in greater jeopardy than at any time in nearly a century.”

Granted, political correctness and academic obscurantism in some disciplines — mostly the humanities and social sciences — of some elite universities have damaged the prestige of the institutions and irritated substantial portions of the public. But the public should not now be punished by penalizing, with diminished funding, the scientific disciplines that have been mostly innocent of the behaviors that have sometimes made academia a subject of satire.

Richard Levin, economist and Yale’s president, asks: Would Japan’s growth have lagged since 1990 “if Microsoft, Netscape, Apple and Google had been Japanese companies”? Japan’s failure has been a failure to innovate. As “Gathering Storm” says: Making the government lean by cutting the most defensible — because most productive — federal spending is akin to making an overweight aircraft flight-worthy by removing an engine.

George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Charles McPheeters 7 years, 2 months ago

George will does not live in lawrence, Kansas. If he did he would realize that spending millions and more millions on sports stadiums and administrations is much more important than science and educational facilities.

jayhawklawrence 7 years, 2 months ago

How about doing a better job of promoting ethics in business and government.

There has never been a higher level of distrust in our politicians and our largest corporations, particularly in the areas of finance, energy and health care.

Yet, anytime someone makes a move to counter these powerful elites of industry, the Republican thought police go into attack and mislead mode.

We know what Wall Street did to us. We know what the Health Care industry is doing to us. We know what the energy giants are doing to us. We know what games the politicians are playing. Even the Supreme Court is now against the little guy.

More attacks on privacy, private ownership, religious freedom (IRS) and unlimited influence of money in politics and government.

It is not our country anymore, but we still have a vote in the next election. We shouldn't waste it.

jayhawklawrence 7 years, 2 months ago

We are in an age where the government is monitoring everything we do because we want to be protected from terrorism. All of your internet and phone communications are monitored in some way.

The concept of liberty is changing. The concept of ownership, free will and privacy is changing. They are beginning to mean something different.

In this environment, the idea of what it means to be an American is changing.

We need to get the money out of politics as soon as possible. We need an end to partisan politics as well.

This country is about individuals, not powerful elites. It should be about protecting liberty and the bill of rights. Not pay to play politicians and powerful corporations. Our financial institutions should belong to the American people, not investment companies on Wall Street who put our tax dollars into China.

The best thing the Republican Party could do to win back the trust of the American people is to advance finance reform legislation. NOW.

We need a compassionate and sensible, non politicized solution to immigration reform, not the ignorant rhetoric we are so tired of.

The Democrats need to clean house and become more responsible with money and quit scaring the hell out of small business people. We still don't understand what the hell they passed in the new health care bill or where all that stimulus money went.

Kontum1972 7 years, 2 months ago

most of them have forgotten what wall street did...seems the only one behind bars is bernie madoff...where are his fellow crooks...or was he the sacrificial lamb while the rest run free.

jafs 7 years, 2 months ago

I'm a bit shocked that Will is promoting federal investment in education.

jayhawklawrence 7 years, 2 months ago

When the government forgets who they work for, the American people, we end up being lab rats. These guys are essentially geniuses at one thing, creating hot air.

We have not heard much from Robert Reich lately and the other new age economists. I wonder why.

Americans rejected extreme conservatism a long time ago and they rejected and are in the process of rejecting new age economics. I would put these theories in the same class as a box full of incense from the 60's that you might see at a garage sale.

That is the idea that all you have to do is pump Government money into the economy and shish boom bah, you have economic prosperity.


Richard Heckler 7 years, 2 months ago

Waging wars and cutting taxes = reckless economics

Cutting taxes instead of creating new industry for new employment = reckless economics

Michael True, Truthout: "At the beginning of the new year, consequences of 'life at war' stare us in the face: the victimization of military and civilian populations and a huge national debt, including an annual military budget that is larger than all military budgets in the world combined and includes $5 billion that remains unaccounted for in Iraq, as well as aid to Pakistan that has wound up in the hands of the Taliban....

Any responsible citizen acknowledges this painful history in the hope of redirecting US foreign policy in the future. The purpose of reclaiming it is not to open old wounds, but to encourage legislative and direct action committed to peacemaking. It is a call to critique the policies and competence of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the national security apparatus responsible for these disasters."

Read the Article http://www.truth-out.org/us-war-since-1950-a-new-years-meditation66358

The USA is involved is how many wars in the oil rich mideast?

And the military will soon be off to Sudan!

Oh my look what Sudan has to offer corp america: Natural resources: petroleum; small reserves of iron ore, copper, chromium ore, zinc, tungsten, mica, silver, gold, hydropower Definition: This entry lists a country's mineral, petroleum, hydropower, and other resources of commercial importance. Source: CIA World Factbook - Unless otherwise noted, information in this page is accurate as of December 30, 2010 See Also

* Sudan Energy Production Statistics (Source: US Energy Information Administration)
* Sudan Mineral Production Statistics (Source: US Geological Survey)

gudpoynt 7 years, 2 months ago

Wow. A refreshing take from G.W.

I disagree with his insinuation that the "math and sciences" are the baby, while suggesting that the "humanities and social sciences" might be expendable bathwater.

Take two of the largest and most successful technical companies in the US for instance: Google and Facebook. Two examples of excellence in software and network engineering, no doubt, but what sets them apart is their attention to social constructions in America.

The face of industry is changing with the emergence of unprecedented communication technologies. Tangible products will always be an essential factor, but advancements in information managment and communication strategies are just as key in staying competitive in a global economy. I would argue that disciplines in the humanities and social sciences have equally significant contributions to make for our economic future as those in math and the physical sciences.

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