American Science -- Fragile Eminence?

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The Pew Research Center report on attitudes toward science in American life is intriguing. The masses appear be more respectful of scientists than vice versa. But the public is also more worried about the state of US research than scientists themselves are. The proportion of the public considering science America's "greatest achievement" has declined from 47 percent in 1999 to 27 percent now. While nearly half of scientists (49 percent) consider US science "the best in the world," only 17 percent of the public do. In fact, over a quarter (26 percent) regard it as only "average," a judgement shared by only 5 percent of scientists themselves.

There are some apparent contradictions in the thinking of scientists. Three quarters of them (76 percent) say this "a good time for science" in general, and a slightly smaller proportion for their own fields, but fully 87 percent are concerned about lack of funding for basic science as a "very serious" or "serious" impediment to "high-quality" research. Does that mean it's a great time -- for mediocre results? It probably reflects scientists' sentiment that grant-makers favor the routine and predictable. As a section of the report explains:

Comparable shares of scientists working in applied (62%) and basic (60%) research say that most research funders in their fields emphasize lower risk projects expected to make incremental progress. Across scientific disciplines, those working in the biological and medical sciences are more likely than others to say that most funders stress low-risk projects.


Here's a view from the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation site for a European perspective. It suggests lasting headaches from the US dot-com hangover:

In Washington, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation only classes the US sixth according to criteria such as investment in research and development, high technology infrastructure and the proportion of researchers in the working population. More seriously, of the 36 countries studied, the United States was the one that had progressed the least in ten years.

In science and technology alike, there can be a long delay before a trend in education or grant support is reflected conspicuously, as in the Nobel Prizes, which honor researchers for work often done decades earlier on the basis of previous professional training. The laity, ignorant of scientific (and other facts) though they may be, might have more insight from a distance than researchers who must focus on the next proposal.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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