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It’s Time To Nurture Science In U.S.

America needs to face this uncomfortable fact: Technology has left a large percentage of the country in the dust.

Millions of people in the United State are unable to keep up with the global economy American geniuses helped create. Our health care systems are bent, if not broken. Our manufacturing companies, if they can compete, are often run by robots. We’re in the midst of a transition none of us could have anticipated — from talking to one another face to face to talking to one another into a box that takes what we say to a satellite way up there, and brings it down again, even if just next door.

Even though I took a course in computer programming in 1962, and when the teacher of that course, who was a member of the mathematics department at my university asked me during my final oral exam if I’d ever use computers in my work, I said with only the self-assurance of a young Ph. D., “not until they get smart enough to teach me how to use them.” Which of course they did.

In 16 years of so, at the hand of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and a few others, Apple became a machine at the interface of Liberal Arts Street and Technology Avenue. Gates made code a language that could be understood. And the inventors of hyper-text, and the internet gave us a global village.

We may talk of a “global village,” but in fact we now live in two cultures; the culture of the world, and the culture of the place where we sleep. At the turn of the 20th century, those working on farms where wages were poor could move to the cities, and many did. They made cars, steel or concrete, and built buildings. They manned ships, toted grain, hauled iron ore. Some taught children; others nursed the sick, and eventually taught others how to do those things. Many women stayed home and raised families. When grandma got old, their children looked after her.

But technology changed all that. “Wash day” melded into every other day, because washers and driers did most of the work while mom (or dad) did something else. Time with parents for children lessened as day care professionals took care of the little ones until they were ready to go to school.

Mothers as well as fathers worked; some wanted careers; others worked because they had to. Sundays, once a day of rest and church, became days for organized sports. Five-year-olds took up ballet and soccer. Attendance at traditional mainline churches dwindled; “megachurches” swelled.

By and large, the workplace was stressful, though it demanded a lot less physical labor. So many professionals had to find new ways to burn off energy. They ran marathons and swam long distances to get the cardiovascular system pumping. They jogged, lifted weights and lived frenetic lives to get to the mythical nirvana promised by brokers and TV ads — a relaxed retirement with an RV, or an apartment near the kids.

Much of this stems from the vast changes spawned by the technical and communications revolution. The computer (why do we still call it that?) took over our lives. There are far more cell phones in China than people in this country. Picture phones record; computers talk to other computers.

Murders are recorded by video camera; thieves are caught; bankers are watched; infrastructure is managed (or not) — the list goes on. The World Wide Web is an immense party line. But just like those party lines of old, some kid, some where, may get access to the thoughts of the town’s communicators. And if those thoughts are private thoughts, now those kids somewhere know how to ask for money to stop their incursions. Our America didn’t nurture the next generation of geniuses to make what the first generation started at home. So the things that made computers work like semi-conductor chips – ended up being made elsewhere, in countries where science, particularly physics and engineering, was emphasized more than here. An entire industry, the one that made the communications revolution actually happen, moved off-shore. Politicians and managers grumbled, but why this had happened was clear: Other countries had nurtured what America had not — a technical generation of scientists and engineers who could keep on advancing the communications revolution even if they didn’t invent it. True, there was a still a large research infrastructure in the United States — in universities, government labs, research institutes and hospitals, much of it health-care driven.

But soon, it became clear that we had to import scientific skills and talent to even operate it. So we prioritized the immigration of scientists, and university labs ran on the energies of foreign nationals, many of whom would become citizens. But then this well too started to run dry.

Many Americans may not have realized exactly what was happening, but they sensed they had been left behind. Everyone needed the best health care could offer, but we hadn’t paid for it. Everyone wanted cell phones, computers, smart TVs instead. University degrees were too often certificates of passage in interesting but nonapplicable things, rather than certificates that said this student has a degree in engineering, physics, chemistry or materials science that is competitive with any given in the world.

So, when the major pandemic hit in 2020, the American health care system was unprepared. The nation had installed a president who appealed to many’s grievances – but it was underprepared, and sadly, had no answers. Actually leadership made things worse in the face of worst threat to the world’s health in history.

America, however, still had one thing going for it – the brilliant and elastic Constitution its founding fathers wrote. These men saw dangers from despots. Today, some who feel lost are supporting those who ignore the wisdom of the Constitution. And when they lost control of government at the ballot box in 2020 they tried to take it by armed force in 2021, lying about the clear fact that they were losers. For a moment, even the rule of law seemed in danger but the nation dodged a bullet on January 6. So there are still elected leaders who have chosen lying, rather than truth, as a fundamental policy. How long can America as we know it last in a world turned upside down? Will our Constitution hold through thick or thin?

Time will tell. Let’s hope that not only democracy prevails, that we will get serious about our nation’s universities, technology research and biomedical development. Will we do what we need to do to really get serious about health care. For this virus could be followed by another, and we are no more prepared for it than we were for COVID-19.

I guess the major question is will our political systems allow our nation to do what I believe it still can do — emphasize access to, instruction in, and the hard work required in basic and applied research that will allow us to survive into the future?

Douglas C. Neckers is the retired Director of the Center for Photochemical Sciences and former Chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center. His 3dscienceblog.com contains much of his writing since the beginning of the pandemic.

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