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Photograph by Mark Mahaney.
As President Bush’s point man for science, John Marburger bore the brunt of a dissatisfied scientific community’s complaints about the direction of science and its treatment by the United States government. In an exclusive interview, given on November 5, just hours after Barack Obama’s historic victory and his speech harkening to the power of “science and imagination” to shape our lives, Dr. Marburger took the morning to speak with Seed editor-in-chief Adam Bly and senior editor T.J. Kelleher. It was a chance to take stock of the state of science in America and the world; to consider the politicization of science; to challenge, contradict, and defend; and to ask whether what America has done for science the past eight years represents the best that it can do.
Seed: So let’s start big. What is the state of science in America?
John Marburger: Well, that’s not big enough. I thought we were going to talk about the state of science in the world.
Seed: Could we take the budgetary dimension out of the equation for a moment?
JM: That’s very hard to do. The health of science depends on having money for people and facilities and infrastructure that science needs to fly. It’s a major aspect, probably the primary aspect of science health.
Seed: But would you acknowledge that another aspect of the state of science is a culture of science? Could you compare the culture of science in America eight years ago to today?
JM: Virtually unchanged, as far as I’m concerned. Science has its own culture. And it’s a relatively nonpolitical, almost apolitical, culture. We’ve seen some increased visibility of the science community during the Bush administration. I think that was part of a political strategy of the Democratic Party, which was somewhat successful, to undermine the credibility of the Bush administration by fixing on these issues. His position on stem cells was attacked as a scientific position, when in fact it’s an ethical position. He was attacked for his position on the Kyoto protocol, despite its serious flaws, and the fact that the Senate had already refused to ratify it. But the way it was handled gave an opportunity to the detractors of the president to use those issues to portray the administration as negative toward science.
Seed: So there’s no merit to those criticisms?
JM: That image is an urban legend. He made federal money available for embryonic stem cell research for the first time. Furthermore, his State of the Union addresses as well as other speeches often emphasized technology and how important it was. When he unveiled his American Competitiveness Initiative, he stated clearly that it was important to double the budgets for the agencies that did the most critical basic research in physical science.
Seed: Is America still competitive with the rest of the world in science and technology?
JM: The concerns are not about the present. The concern is all about the future. And certainly, the longest term issue in competitiveness is the preparation of a technical workforce. The weakness is manifest in the first place by the rate at which young people choose to go into technical careers of any sort. The No Child Left Behind Act, like other initiatives in science and education that the president has launched, sought to address that lack of preparation. The main criticisms tend to be that it has not been enough.
The quality of science education is very poor because we don’t have qualified teachers in the classrooms. Important components of No Child Left Behind and also the American Competitiveness Initiative were designed to address that. The quality of teaching in science and mathematics needs to be enhanced in the US, absolutely.
Seed: Okay. Let’s compare that with the state of science in the world.
JM: About a third of the world’s R&D is performed in North America, nearly all of it in the US. About a third in Europe and about a third in Asia. Asia is dominated by Japan and now China. North America is dominated by the US. In Europe it is more balanced. Europe is trying to forge coherence in its very fragmented system of education and research, and doing a pretty good job of it. Then there is this huge north/south split. There is emerging research in South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, but it is tiny, and the infrastructure is growing slowly. The percentage of GDP devoted to research in those countries is very small.
Those are areas that we should be concerned about, because investments in science and technology are important stabilizing features for the economies, and they are important nucleations for development programs. You don’t have to have people working on particle physics or cosmology in Africa, but you need people who understand them to act as role models and attract young people into technical studies.
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