Mixed Messages About Science Could Imperil U.S. Companies | #computerhacking | #hacking | #education | #technology | #infosec

“It’s not an immutable law of nature that it’s always going to be the good guys who are the best scientists and engineers; that came through decades of investment. Imagine a world where the bad guys have the best scientists and the best engineers, and their computer hackers are better than our computer hackers, and their space programs are better, etc.” Those are the words of William G. Kaelin Jr., 2019 Nobel laureate and the Sidney Farber Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Dr. Kaelin shared those thoughts in a recent conversation with me about, first, how bipartisan support for science and engineering during the space race and Cold War helped inspire an entire generation of scientists, and second, how mixed messages about science in recent years imperil our future safety and prosperity.

“In the sixties, for example, we treated scientists and engineers like heroes in the U.S.,” he told me. “In many respects, other scientists of my generation and I are the products of that message. But I worry that today’s students hear mixed messages from Washington about science, like, for example, whether facts are objectifiable. They see scientists thrown under the bus for reaching conclusions at odds with what policymakers want to hear. Kids are smart, and they’re certainly not oblivious to what’s happening.”

Certainly, there were unique exogenous shocks in the post-World War 2 era that united Americans and invigorated government investment in science; for example, the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. “No event since Pearl Harbor set off such repercussions in public life,” notes historian Walter McDougall.

Research from Clemson University found that “By connecting the quality of scientific training to the survival of the nation, (the National Science Foundation) was able to increase its fellowships budget by more than 100% immediately after Sputnik.” And just one year later, in 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, authorizing more than $1 billion for bolstering education in the areas of science, mathematics, and modern foreign languages to “ensure trained manpower of sufficient quality and quantity to meet the national defense needs of the United States.”

While Sputnik, the space race, and the Cold War were galvanizing exogenous shocks that prompted support for, and investment in, science, one would think that a global pandemic would be similarly motivating.

However, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 29% of U.S. adults say they have a great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public, down from 40% in November 2020.

And an analysis of the General Social Survey, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, found that confidence in science has become increasingly polarized, noting that, “In 2021, 64% of Democrats have a great deal of confidence in the scientific community, whereas only 34% of Republicans say the same.”

Dr. Kaelin, whose Nobel Prize-winning research has tremendous implications for fighting cancer, shared with me, “Sometimes people ask me what we in cancer research can learn from Covid-19. My answer to them is that the more you invest in new knowledge creation, the faster you’ll acquire knowledge, and thus the faster we’ll get the treatments we need. We were able to act quickly on Covid-19 because of decades of basic research related to, for example, chemistry, viruses and the immune system.”

Unfortunately, the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board notes that “The U.S. lead in advancing science and technology is eroding. Though the U.S. has steadily increased its total R&D spending over time, its global share of R&D expenditure has fallen significantly.” And while the U.S. topped the Bloomberg Innovation Index in 2013, by 2021 it had dropped out of the top ten.

Given the incentives of most business CEOs, it’s not surprising that they typically spend more time thinking about their companies’ product development strategies than the government’s investment in pure research and the population’s trust in science. But the less-polarized views of science in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, combined with significant investments in research and science education by the federal government, laid the groundwork for the success of many of today’s businesses. And there are sufficient warning signs that our current trust in, and funding of, science could have deleterious effects on U.S. companies going forward.

This article is both a warning and a rallying cry for U.S. businesses to ramp up their support for science. Science takes money, time and trust, and although the results aren’t always predictable, history shows that the payoffs are huge. As Dr. Kaelin told me, “Many of the recent breakthroughs I’m most excited about weren’t initially foreseeable. But some scientist who was properly resourced, and given the time and trust to follow their curiosity and instincts, discovered something that turned out to be incredibly useful.”

And if that weren’t motivation enough for business leaders to support more funding for, and trust in, science, Dr. Kaelin offered this scary thought: “If an enemy of the United States made a to-do list, one of their top priorities would be to undermine American science and engineering. America’s safety has long been bolstered, if not driven, by having the best scientists and the best engineers.”

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