American prominence on the world stage has not been due to some issue of “national character”; our people are not inherently different than people anywhere else in the world. But we have, in the past, had better educational resources, and a greater emphasis on science and engineering. But no longer.
Back in September, I wrote that America is out of touch and behind the times on climate change and economic reform. It is mired in a stagnant war that the rest of the west has abandoned or is abandoning. American global influence is in decline, the country having lost the respect of allies and the credibility to lead. As we’ve seen yet again in last week’s brinkmanship by Turkey, American diplomacy has all the vim and vigour of Fred Thompson. For now America remains the world leader, but it’s moving steadily from superpower to first among equals. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sciences.
In the half-century following the second world war US universities were magnets for students and academics from around the world. Crucially, many foreign graduate students studying the physical sciences, biological sciences, IT and engineering stayed after graduation. As the Gathering Storm report notes: “Government spending on R&D soared after World War II, and … as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) reached a peak of 1.9% in 1964.” In the last six or seven years, however, that tide has turned. Overseas institutions and companies are increasingly competitive, and federal and state funding for science and engineering has fallen significantly, to just 0.8% of GDP. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are sucking up federal money, with President Bush last week asking Congress to raise the war budget for 2008 to $196bn. That’s quite an opportunity cost.
While the US is still a world leader in science and technology, the gap is closing, and rapidly. China and India crank out engineers at a rate that dwarfs ours. As we’ve documented here at Plunderbund, belief in scientific theories are alarmingly low here compared to other industrialized nations around the world. Federal research dollars – the stuff that funds core research with little immediate ROI (and thus rarely funded by private industry) are actually shrinking under the Bush Administration. One area where we remain far ahead of the rest of the world – where we spend more than everyone else combined and more than 10 times the next biggest spender – is in “defense”. That’s really the only thing keeping us afloat scientifically (and I should know – it’s how I make my living, and I see where the research dollars come from).
One interesting note from the AAAS data: the only reason the decline isn’t steeper is America’s increasing support for weapon systems development. This year’s Nobel prizes captured the mood. For the first time this century, Americans were not among those awarded the physics and chemistry prizes.
The era of American Exceptionalism is at an end. And it’s because our leaders would rather ban scientific research into stem cells and “teach the controversy” and undercut solid scientific education in our schools, rather than investing in the technology, infrastructure, and core science research necessary to keep us out in front of the rest of the world.