Dear President Bush,
It was somewhat surprising, but still most welcome, to receive your request for advice on the pressing scientific issues of our time. Brief general advice won't be very useful, with two possible exceptions. First, support for superb science education will pay off so handsomely that I have no idea why you have not done it already. Probably you are distracted, but this is one of those "not urgent but important" things that should not be put off further. Second, because the big advances usually come from basic science, you would do well to invest more there, instead of assigning resources mainly to solve problems.
I suspect, however, that what you really want is advice on how to use our scientific advantage to gain economic and military advantages. We dominate the world in science, and this science helps us to dominate the world. But, the price is high. Many in other countries see the United States not as the leading light, but as a bully that uses its scientific powers only to advance its own interests. Yes, I know we do much that benefits other countries, and it must be frustrating to you that these efforts get so little notice. Nonetheless, many people hate us and see our science as an instrument of imperialism.
You can change this, and science can help. We are coming to new explanations of how relationships work. Trading favors is only the beginning; a reputation for fulfilling commitments is equally important. Your current policies demonstrate that you understand the importance of convincing others that we will fulfill military commitments even when they are not in our direct interests. There is also power in fulfilling commitments to help others even when no benefit is expected.
Just a few generous actions based on values, not interests, would change how the world sees us. Here is one way to proceed. You could create a new organization, call it The World Science Collaboration, to tackle problems that other countries find urgent. Provide them with resources to deal with these problems, and with whatever help they request from US scientists, many of whom will be eager to contribute to such an effort. To work, this must not be aid with strings attached, but a gift without any expectation of paybacks, financial or political. Once it is clear that we are serious, the world will quickly realize that we do not always use our science for ourselves.
Furthermore, the initiative will spread scientific expertise that will foster development and fight superstition. If we invested 4.5 billion dollars, the cost of one aircraft carrier, into finding cures for malaria and sleeping sickness, the whole world would see us differently, and the health of the world would soon be improved. If we set up a dozen such projects, the changed outcomes in arguments about the USA late at night in dirt-floored huts across the world might well enhance our security more than all the technology we can muster.
This opportunity is rare in its appeal to people across the political spectrum from the helping left, to the pragmatic center and, one would hope, the truly religious on the right. People here will see this as a small but feasible and tangible antidote to perceptions that the United States is the enemy of the rest of the world. People elsewhere will see that the United States can act on principle instead of cynical self-interest. This could be the most important accomplishment of your presidency.
I would be curious to hear your perspectives on this, and glad, if you would like, to discussion specific plans for implementation.
Randolph M. Nesse, M.D.
Professor of Psychiatry, Professor of Psychology
Senior Research Scientist, RCGD, Institute for Social Research
The University of Michigan
Author of Why We Get Sick, The New Science of Darwinian Medicine; Editor of Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment