Congressional leadership and vision propels U.S. leadership in science
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At a time of acute partisan rhetoric, it’s good to remember that our elected leaders have a long track record of coming together around an issue that impacts us all: science. The passage of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA) just before the holidays powerfully underscores that reality.

Nothing advances our society more than acquiring new knowledge. As the AICA put it, “Scientific and technological advancement have been the largest drivers of economic growth in the last 50 years.” American discoveries have helped create industries and jobs, protect our war fighter. and have given us a deeper understanding of the world and ourselves.

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Breakthroughs in medicine, computing, and communications, to name just a few, have dramatically improved our quality of life.

The progress of science is intrinsically in our nation’s interest and Congress has a proud history in that endeavor, from our race to the Moon to challenging research agencies to continuously up their game.

Vannevar Bush’s post WWII vision of a peacetime agency — the National Science Foundation (NSF) — has spurred discoveries by supporting the best ideas of researchers across all fields of science and engineering. Bar codes, Doppler radar, MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), Google, speech recognition technology, and fiber optics all trace their roots to support from NSF.

Bipartisan support — and oversight — from Congress has committed our country to scientific leadership in the face of rising international competition.

Mission-driven research — which vastly outstrips our “blue-sky” research — is not a replacement for pursuing fundamental questions across the sciences that have led to discoveries both unexpected and wondrous.

As the AICA notes, “sustained, predictable Federal funding of basic research is essential to United States leadership in science and technology.” 

For example, it was unflinching, long-term, federal support of NSF that ultimately led to the recent detection of the collision of two massive black holes, each approximately 30 times the mass of our Sun, by LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory).  

This cosmic cataclysm produced ripples in the fabric of the universe itself – gravitational waves, the existence of which were first predicted in 1916 by Albert Einstein in his theory of general relativity. Over 1,000 scientists and engineers contributed their talents to this monumental achievement in fundamental science.

While opening up an entirely new way for us to observe the universe, LIGO also spawned novel tools and technologies with numerous commercial applications, such as a way to control temperatures in systems that employ powerful lasers which is now being used in high-tech manufacturing.

Envisioned over 50 years ago, Congress first approved LIGO in the early 1990s, taking a big leap of faith for a risky endeavor with no guarantee of success.

But despite our progress, the unknown remains an endless frontier, full of risks and opportunities. At the NSF, we’re exploring big ideas to put before Congress that will help push our country further than our competitors.

Emerging opportunities abound — big data and empirical modeling will transform science much like computers transformed engineering, and boost our ability to tackle elusive and complex problems.

Our nation’s ambition made U.S. global leadership in science and technology possible. South Korea, India, Brazil, and especially China are following our model, dramatically growing their science and technology capacities.

This is good for humanity because science is not a zero sum game. But if we want to continue to lead, we need to pursue grand visions, enable revolutionary ideas, and develop a workforce that can thrive in our high tech, global economy.

As we transition to a new Congress and new Administration, the National Science Board urges our federal leaders to continue to champion discovery research  — the unquenchable thirst to understand our world — and so transform and enhance the human experience. 

The writer is Vice President for Research at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Chair of the National Science Board (NSB). The NSB is the oversight and policymaking body of the National Science Foundation, the only federal agency that supports fundamental research across all fields of science and engineering and develops a workforce ready to advance science and engineering for society. The NSB is also an independent, apolitical advisor to Congress and the President on national science policy.


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