"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?"


In the modern world, science, democracy and prosperity go hand in hand, and it is no coincidence that throughout history those nations that led the development of democracy also led their times in scientific advancement.

Lee Smolin

Dear Mr. President,

The United States has led the world in science and technology since World War II. In recent years our lead has reduced as Europe, Japan and Canada have matched and in some cases exceeded our investments in education and science. This is to be expected, and we can be happy that all of our rivals for scientific and technological leadership are also our allies. Indeed, in the modern world, science, democracy and prosperity go hand in hand, and it is no coincidence that throughout history those nations that led the development of democracy also led their times in scientific advancement. Our main goal, as the leader of the democratic world, must be to see that the benefits of democracy and science, and the prosperity they jointly give rise to, are extended to all the peoples of the Earth.

To achieve this we shall have to make use of the unique strengths of our society, which have been responsible for our dominance in science and technology. These strengths are connected to the openness of our society to new ideas and new immigrants, to our spirit of initiative and innovation, to our generosity, our preference for peace over war, and the respect for peoples of all cultures, races and nations that comes from our being a nation of immigrants. We would best build on these by the following steps:

1) Create crash programs, analogous to the Manhattan project and the Apollo program, to solve the major scientific and technological problems facing human kind. These include global warming, energy efficiency and renewable energy resources. It also includes developments in medicine and biology related to public health, such as the AIDS epidemic as well as finding ways to protect against terrorism without compromising our freedoms.

Only the United States has the scientific capability, economic resources and technological base to mount programs to solve these problems. Only the United States has the experience of successfully carrying off such ambitious programs. Only the United States has the spirit of innovation and risk taking that makes such projects succeed. By taking on and solving these problems we would create enormous benefits to all the peoples of the world. There is indeed no better way to maintain our position of leadership in the eyes of the world.

Thus, in each of the areas I mentioned, I propose that the United States announce a crash program with clearly defined goals. Put the prestige of your office and the scientific and technological capabilities of the United States on the line in each of these. Create a flexible, flat organization, led by scientific and engineering visionaries, not managers and bureaucrats, fund them generously and give them all the scope and resources they need to succeed quickly. Remember that it took less than five years to make the atomic bomb, and less than ten to put a person on the moon. Avoid the temptation, in areas such as global warming and energy independence, to reward special interests by delaying action and funding further studies. Instead, put the energy of our scientists and engineers into finding and implementing workable solutions to the problems.

This is an expensive proposal, but it will be worth every dollar. For example, in the long run it will be cheaper to invest our resources to develop renewable sources of energy, and new energy efficient technologies, than in increasingly risky and destabilizing attempts to control oil and gas by military force.

2) Our leadership is due in no small measure to the fact that a large fraction of scientists and engineers working in the United States immigrated here in order to study and work. To maintain leadership, we must keep open the possibility that a bright young engineer or scientist can come to our shores from anywhere in the world and realize the American dream while working in our universities, laboratories and companies. We benefit enormously from the talents and contributions of those who stay and become American citizens, but we also benefit from those who return to their countries after studying and working here. There is no better way to win friends and to promote the spread of our values than by continuing to have open doors for scientists and engineers. Generally speaking, there is no person of any background or culture more likely to appreciate our democratic values, and less likely to engage in terrorism or religious fundamentalism, than a person trained in the sciences.

3) Let us do everything we can to maintain leadership in pure sciences. This means funding the NSF and NIH generously, but it means more than that. Over the last several decades these organizations have become increasingly bureaucratic, inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of those scientists who do the most to advance science. There are fewer and fewer grants to individual scientists as an increasing proportion of the funds are diverted to big projects and research centers. But it can be documented that most major advances come from the laboratories and offices of individual scientists, and not from big research centers and projects. Then why the trend? Unfortunately all too often, the big research centers and projects serve to further the careers of bureaucrats and administrators in government and the universities.

In the universities as well there has been also a rapid growth of bureaucracy and middle management. Where there used to be one chair or dean, there is now a suite of offices with several associate and assistant bureaucrats. While many businesses have eliminated middle managers and flattened hierarchies, to gain the flexibility needed to innovate and compete in a rapidly changing world, universities have been going in the other direction. Many business leaders are quite simply shocked when they try to partner with universities, as they discover how administrative heavy and bureaucratic the large universities have become.

But progress in science depends on risk taking and an openness to novelty and surprise. This is why most scientific advances are made by young scientists, or by those who take the risk of switching fields during their careers. I once asked a General of the Marine Corp how they educate people to take on large amounts of risk. He said the most important thing they teach a Marine officer is that there is a big difference between leadership and management. This is a lesson too many of the administrators who lead the big universities and research projects never learned.

So I would ask: why should the universities, which are the sector of our society most responsible for innovation and discovery, be the place where seniority and bureaucracy most hinder the rise of talented young people to positions of leadership?

I once asked a venture capitalist how he judged when he was taking on the right amount of risk. He responded that when more than 10% of the companies he funded succeeded, he knew that he was not taking on enough risk, and that his profits would consequently suffer. This amazed me, as we university professors write our grant proposals to NSF and NIH as if there is no risk whatsoever. To be funded, we have learned, we must present every scientific project as if it is bound to succeed. Many scientists simply propose doing things they already know will work. This reduces risk taking, leads to much duplication of effort and slows down the progress of science. I would then propose that you require that the federal funding agencies reorganize themselves so that they behave more like venture capitalists than like mortgage bankers, so that young scientists, and scientists of all ages with bold and ambitious ideas, have the support they need to take on the degree of risk that is required to keep science advancing rapidly in the United States.



Lee Smolin
Theoretical Physicist
Founding member, Perimeter Institute in Waterloo Canada
Author of The Life of The Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity.

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