"I can repeat the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?"


2003

"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"


Science is the only way we have of truly understanding how our increasingly complex world works. The scientific view is the long view—it is not short term thinking; it seeks the big picture. The choice is clear: a future of ignorance, or a far better future of enlightenment.

Steve Giddings

Dear Mr. President:

A great president is measured in several ways. One is his response to crisis. Another is his vision of the future.

Many of issues most critical to our future as a society, and indeed as the human species, have a large scientific component. These include:

• Uncontrolled population growth, that is beginning to surpass the level at which our world resources can sustain it. Another example of an exponential growth curve in a finite system is cancer: by the time you realize you have it, it's just a few more tumor-doubling times to death.

• The related problem of global environmental crises: global warming, species extinctions unparalleled since the end of the age of the dinosaurs, large-scale loss of habitat of all kinds, from forest to sea, global-scale pollution, and others.

• Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction: as North Korea is demonstrating, this is not just a problem with Iraq, and soon this problem will spread. Ultimately, our survival as a species is probably at stake.

• Bioterrorism: I needn't explain its relevance to you.

There are many others, and that means there are some very tough decisions that we, as a nation, have to make in confronting these problems. We are in it for the long haul: they won't go away soon. It is essential that we, as a people, be fully informed to make these choices. Yet many among our population have a woefully inadequate background in scientific matters, which lie at the very foundation of these and other problems.

For this reason, the most important scientific matter facing the nation is that of scientific education, literacy, and appreciation. It is imperative that our populace, as well as our decision makers, have a solid grounding in basic scientific principles, appreciation for what science can (and cannot) do, and understanding of how science is carried out.

I've referred to crisis, let's turn to vision. Not only would a scientifically literate populace be better equipped to handle our problems, but it would be better able to work towards a greatly improved future. The fruits of past scientific innovation are all around us: computers, TVs, the World Wide Web (invented by high energy physicists!), medical diagnostics, advancing cures for many diseases, new sources of power, and many more. Our modern society as we know it would not exist without the discoveries of science—we'd still be huddled around our wood stoves and lanterns and riding horses. And there is so much more we can do, as we advance our fundamental understanding of our Universe, our world, and our biology. Science is a path of bold exploration, and it may someday even be a path to the stars.

For this reason I would urge you to follow the vision of a scientifically literate populace, able to intelligently confront our crises and lead humanity to a better future.

There are many things that could be done, and we can discuss details later. But here are some ideas:

• Advocate revamping of school curricula, at both the K-12 and University levels, to place adequate focus on mathematics and physical and biological sciences as an integral part of core curricula. The US was reminded of the importance of science in the Sputnik era, and responded well. Let's not wait for another dramatic signal that we are falling behind. If you prefer to think of it this way, this is, in the end, a matter of our national security.

• Improve science funding through the NSF, DOE, NIH, and other national funding organizations. Much of this funding ultimately goes into the training of new leaders in science.

• Initiate programs to foster better communication between scientists and the press. It is essential that the American people, through their press, gain an understanding of what science is, what is good (and bad) science, and appreciate the importance and great promise that science holds for their future.

• Initiate programs to bring more scientific knowledge to our decision makers: Congress and other administration officials. We should have annual meetings in which leading scientists are invited to brief our leaders on the implications, perils, and promises of scientific discoveries. Congress, and all of your administration, should, on an ongoing basis, actively seek the advice of scientists, both in confronting crises, and in planning for a better future for the American people.

Science is the only way we have of truly understanding how our increasingly complex world works. The scientific view is the long view—it is not short term thinking; it seeks the big picture. The choice is clear: a future of ignorance, or a far better future of enlightenment.

Steve Giddings
Professor of Physics
University of California, Santa Barbara

 

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