A strong nation stands on the shoulders of science and technology
Science is not just a passion, it is a pillar of the American economy.
Americans have a passion for science.
We see this at Carnegie’s headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., where more people than can fit in our beautiful Art Deco auditorium show up for our Capital Science Evening programs each month.
But it’s obviously not a phenomenon that’s unique to this community.
The American public is fascinated by explorations of outer space, visualizations of the dynamic processes shaping our planet, and discoveries of how life originated and adapts. People love reading and hearing about how knowledge of space, Earth, and life, gleaned from scientific investigation, can improve our collective future on the extraordinary, tiny blue dot that we call home.
We grow up reading about Ben Franklin’s experiments with lightning and bifocal glasses and the Lewis & Clark expedition sent forth by Thomas Jefferson—a President who was fascinated by science. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and Grace Hopper forever improved the sophistication of computer programming. Carnegie’s own Barbara McClintock unlocked the secrets of chromosomes and graces the pages of every high school biology textbook.
Now, we can warn about major storms or geological hazards using data analyzed by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, along with their university and industry colleagues. Biological discovery, supported by the National Institutes of Health and enhanced by biotech companies, has revolutionized medicine and public health.
Vannevar Bush, the Carnegie institute’s president from 1939 to 1955, was a leader of the Manhattan Project and a founder of Raytheon. Bush proposed the idea for what eventually became the National Science Foundation, which is one of the most important drivers of science in the country and, in fact, the whole world.
The tradition for which Bush advocated of major scientific breakthroughs originating from cooperation between academic, government, and industry enterprises is not an accident. It’s what works best.
The public-private partnership model has led to better solar panel technology and wind turbines, among other improvements, due to National Renewable Energy Laboratory collaborations with industry experts. In my former lab we studied genes that control insect growth. These genes exist in humans, too, and damage to them results in common human cancers. Companies later used this information to devise new treatments for these cancers.
The inventions and discoveries that originate in scientific laboratories go on to create vast numbers of excellent jobs and whole new industries, demonstrating that science isn’t just a passion of the American public imagination, but a pillar of the American economy.
But in a world where federal, private, and academic science is under threat, these words from Vannevar Bush are as true now as they were when he wrote them to President Franklin Roosevelt 70 years ago: “The pioneer spirit is still vigorous within this nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer…The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.”
About the Author
Matthew P. Scott is the President of the Carnegie Institution for Science. Carnegie is a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., with six research departments throughout the U.S. Since its founding in 1902, the Carnegie Institution has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science.