Some recent news got me thinking about the National Science Foundation, and the great success that federal funding of research has enjoyed during the post-World War II period. The world we live in today would be very different if research funding had been left to private corporations over the past six decades. “Very different” does not mean better. Rather, we would likely be much less advanced in our science, health care, technology, innovation, wealth creation, and strength as a nation. To my mind, NSF research is one of our nation’s most powerful and effective investments. It’s really inexpensive on a cost-benefit basis. We underfund the NSF to our future peril.
How did the NSF come into being? It happened after World War II. Major advances in science and technology were made during World War II because the federal government actively sponsored a wide variety of research and technology development projects. There really was no alternative. After all, it was wartime. But the science and technology that were developed didn’t just help win the war; they transformed the peace that followed and catalyzed the age of science and technology that we live in today.
After the war, the National Science Foundation was set up to continue and expand government funding for research, and ensure that the projects supported would be awarded on the basis of merit and not politics. Advanced research funding has proven to be one of the smartest investments our country has made. If we were to get out of the business of funding research, or to dramatically decrease it, we would be making one of the dumbest choices this country could make. We would be surrendering our future economy and national strength to other countries.
Lest you have any doubt, much of the post-war explosion of medical advances, scientific understanding, and high-tech industry—and the jobs, wealth, and health they have generated—has grown out of research funded by the NSF and its sister federal agencies like the NIH, DARPA, and a variety of others. Even if the titles of individual grants are incomprehensible to many, they mean a lot to people who know the subjects and why they are important to the advancement of science. Federally funded research has built much of the world we enjoy today. If funding had been left to private sources, progress would have been much slower.
As just one example, think about Wall Street and the modern financial industry it represents. The financial industry is based on high-speed computers. Computers are based on electronics. Electronics is based on a fundamental understanding of the solid state. Understanding solid state conduction involves explanations like, “Extra holes in the band gap allow excitation of valence band electrons, leaving mobile holes in the valence band.” That’s gobbledy-gook to most people. To physicists and electrical engineers, however, it’s really important and as natural as saying that rain falls down and not up. I used to teach this material to sophomores at the University of Pennsylvania, and the phenomenon it describes lies at the heart of the Macintosh on which I am typing, my iPhone, the Internet, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. As Yul Brenner, that great King of Siam, said many times, “Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
Fortunately, during the post-war period, successive U.S. administrations at the national and state levels have continued to make major government investments in education and advanced research. They have had the good sense to understand the utterly vital importance of education and science. One result has been the growth of our great universities, both public and private, along with dozens of major research laboratories, such as Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia Labs, and many more. These engines of education, innovation, and human liberation have produced the educated individuals and basic knowledge from which Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, and thousands of other wealth- and job-generating companies have sprung. American higher education also has been a beacon to the world, a magnet that has attracted some of the finest minds to become immigrants to our shores. As a result, the U.S. has led the world in education and research, and thus in job and wealth creation.
Success has come from the national community, the social fabric, the investment of governments, and the power of individual creativity, drive, and initiative. Success has not been simply the product of so-called rugged individuals living on real or virtual islands. If scientific research had been restricted to commercial laboratories, and the results had been kept secret, our technological and economic development would have been much slower. Scientists at different institutions would have had to “invent the wheel” over and over again, instead of learning what others had done from research—research that was funded by society and published openly for everyone’s benefit.
By the way, continued American leadership in the future is not guaranteed. It will depend on whether we remain competitive. We don’t have a world monopoly on education and research. Other countries know the secrets of success. Some are trying very hard to catch up with us. They are smart. Make no mistake. We have to compete harder and harder. Hello Red Queen.