The Engine of Prosperity Academics Demand a New Science Policy from Bush

[ Mon. Jan. 13. 2003 ]

In the center of Cambridge at the intersection of Vassar and Main Street, you can still see the future growing. There the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is building an institute according to the plans of Frank Gehry. When you watch how the construction team translates powerful movements first drafted in lead and paper using concrete forms, steel girders, and sheets of aluminum, you get a sense of the euphoric mood that has reigned in the natural sciences in the last few decades.

But then came George W. Bush, September 11, and the crisis in Iraq. Everything now revolves around fear, war, and politics, and Gehry's new construction appears like an echo of a long gone era of progress and hope. Because the last decade brought forth not only scientific successes, but also a new scientific culture, the struggle for the future no longer takes place in privileged circles, but on the public stage.

The worldview with the greatest profile in this regard is the "third culture," because it attempts to find scientific answers to the most important questions facing humanity. New York literary agent John Brockman coined the term, represents most of the stars of this movement, and conducts its most important debating club on his internet platform, Edge (

Every year since 1998, he has asked a public question just before the turn of the new year. This year, he drafted a fictitious e-mail from George W. Bush asking how the Edge community would respond to the president's question, "What are the most pressing scientific problems for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can deal with them?"

The natural ambassadors

"Previously, countless articles in the scientific publications had complained," explains Brockman, "that the office of scientific advisor has become greatly weakened—with the consequence that as little as no public discourse about the sciences takes place under the current administration. Bush's science advisor, John Marburger, enjoys a spotless reputation, but the office for his ministry is located distant from the White House, and he has neither regular access to the president nor a public forum. That shows how much interest this government has in the sciences."

John Brockman has published 85 responses on his website to date. Nearly all of them contain sharp words for the president. "You are in an amazing position," reminds computer scientist Jaron Lanier. "You are the most powerful president in a generation. Be bold! Science and technology are the most potent tools mankind has for improving our circumstances." Chaos theoretician Doyne Farmer postulates, "Science is patriotic." One must only remember the origins of the nation. "Good old American know how is the foundation that has made this a great country. It is no coincidence that so many of the founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, had a lifelong passion for science. Science is the engine that has fueled our prosperity."

In order to renew public excitement for the sciences, computer scientist David Gelernter of Yale University makes the resolute pitch, "Focus the nation's mind on a big, real and exciting problem. Ideally we ought to have a competitor to keep us playing our best game—but if the problem is interesting enough, maybe the competitor doesn't matter." The Australian physicist Paul Davies advises just the same: "Many commentators are urging George Bush Jr. to finish in Iraq what President George Bush Sr. began in the Gulf War. Mr. President, I urge you to apply this advise in space. Take up the challenge. Go to Mars! Even without a political challenge like Sputnik."

According to British evolutionary biologist Brian Goodwin, America stands before just such a dramatic challenge, one that far exceeds Iraq: "Accelerating the rate of CO2 increase in the atmosphere by profligate use of Iraq's vast oil supplies, together with the continuing deforestation of the Amazon, will not only turn the Amazon basin into a parched desert but plunge the entire mid-West into prolonged drought, resulting in famine in your own land." Behavioral researcher William Calvin blows the same tune: "When the patient is civilization itself, science can provide a heads-up—but only the best politicians have the talent to implement the foresight. And coming on stage now is a stunning example of how civilization must rescue itself."

Also according to Joel Garreau, a writer for the Washington Post, "We are entering an era of scientific change that is rocking no less than human nature itself." Above all, it is now worth capitalizing on the progress that genetic research has made. Physicist Freeman Dyson suggests calling into life a worldwide genome project to catalog the genetic structures of all species in the next 50 years.

Nobel Prize-winner and neurobiologist Eric Kandel believes on the contrary that one must above all research the biology that lies at the foundations of human consciousness. The Editor-in-Chief of Nature, Philip Campbell, sees completely different priorities — in light of the million people who die of malaria every year, he argues that we should be dedicating all of our powers to finding a vaccine. Against the background of the stem-cell debate futurologist Ray Kurzweil argues for the development of a technology with whose help a stem can be developed out of the DNA of every individual cell in order to evade the use of controversial embryonic cells while at the same time making overdue medical progress possible.

Kevin Kelly, his colleague from Wired magazine, warns of another danger: "Science, like business, has been totally captured by the next quarter mentality, and it will require a deliberate effort to stress the long view so that our knowledge matches our predicament." Only then do scientific utopias permit themselves to be pursued. And if one is to believe Munich brain researcher Ernst Pöppel, political utopia also follows closely on the heals of the scientific one. "Scientists are natural ambassadors." It is only scientists who bring people and nations together. "Independent of history, religious faith, economic status, gender or color of skin, scientists work together and have worked together to pursue a common goal, i.e. a deeper understanding of nature and culture."

[translation: Christopher Williams]

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[Original German text]