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Blinding Them With Science

David Baltimore is the president emeritus of the California Institute of Technology and the 1975 Nobel Laureate in Biology. Ahmed Zaweil was a colleague of his at C.I.T. and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999. This morning, when from the shallow depths of pride the voices of the two remaining candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination were still piercing in my ears, these two master scientists and masters also of the ethics of science published a column in the Wall Street Journal. They began by reminding us that neither the Democratic aspirants nor John McCain had accepted the invitation of an eminent group, ScienceDebate2008, to address, preferably in a forum, the fact that a decline in science in the country actually threatens the country. I posted a spine about this failed forum a few days ago.


Baltimore and Zaweil write:


Protecting that future starts with understanding that much of the wealth in this country comes from scientific research and technological innovation. Translating science into commerce has opened up vast new fields of endeavor and has raised the standard of living in America. The country that is on the cutting edge of developing new technology is the country best positioned to benefit from that new technology.


A clear example is biotechnology. The U.S. is a leader here, and is able to capitalize on its pre-eminence with disease-resistant crops, anticancer drugs and much more. By developing a strong understanding of the basic science that underlies advances in biotechnology, we are also creating a good training ground for a future generation of scientists and innovators.


But America cannot simply assume its lead in science will continue. In recent years the science community has been starved of the resources it needs. Young, new, energetic scientists are the seed corn of nearly all new scientific development. However, our schools, laboratories and granting agencies all, in one way or another, discourage launching a career in the sciences. There are few grants to live on; and both schools and laboratories have long since lost the sense of joy we remember from our younger days. Science can be exciting and attractive. But convincing bright students to become scientists requires a lot more than we are now providing.


They also make the point that the average age of a National Institute of Health grantee with a PhD is 42, of a grantee with an MD is 44. This is an irrational outcome that shouldn't be simply manipulated down the age scale. There should be a tremendous increase in the allocations to the N.I.H. and the other research-supporting agencies.


In fact, without such a change, we are sabotaging the American future, just as we are with leaving the national infrastructure without the attention it needs. Sarah Goldhagen wrote about this challenge in TNR.


Alas, these two matters have received almost zilch attention. I don't think the question of patriotism can honestly be raised against any of the candidates, except in the fact that they brazenly ignore what should be on the top of their agendas.