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Lubell: Federal Commitment Needed for Big Science

At 3 a.m. EDT on the Fourth of July, among a cadre of high-energy particle physicists around the country, euphoria made sleep impossible. Champagne flowed freely, as physicists celebrated the news that the decades-long quest for the Higgs boson was over.

Two research teams working at the Large Hadron Collider had nailed down the elusive particle, which theoretical physicists, including Peter Higgs, a Scotsman, had postulated years ago was the creator of mass. For science, the victory could not have been sweeter. But for American science, the victory was bittersweet.

The Large Hadron Collider, you see, is not on American soil. It straddles the Swiss-French border outside Geneva.

And ITER, the world’s largest science project ever, which focuses on fusion energy, is not on American soil either. It is under construction in Cadarache, about 35 miles northeast of Marseille, France.

Finally, except for an eleventh-hour intervention by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) last year, Congress would have scuttled America’s astronomical centerpiece, the James Webb Space Telescope, leaving the European Space Agency to pick up NASA’s detritus.

It seems everywhere you look these days our nation is shying away from anything big in science. And that does not bode well for the future. After all, the World Wide Web sprang from high-
energy physics, the epitome of big science. And many medical diagnostic and cancer treatment tools – CT scans, PET scans and proton therapy, among them – trace their origins largely to big science.

The will to do big things is weak in both political parties but especially so among the more recently minted members of the House majority. The major shift in support of science spending among Republicans, who used to epitomize the commitment of patient capital for long-term research, was the subject of my last column.

And it led to howls from a few GOP Congressional offices known for ardent support of science. They were right to object to being painted with one stroke of a broad brush. But voting records on authorizations or appropriations are not easy to explain away.

Republican champions of federal spending on science, such as Frank Wolf (Va.), Rodney Frelinghuysen (N.J.), Judy Biggert (Ill.), Michael McCaul (Texas), John Culberson (Texas) and Randy Hultgren (Ill.), recognize that they are being outflanked and outgunned by the majority of their conference. And they are concerned.

In the last month, I’ve explored the problem with several Congressional offices and concluded that misconceptions and myths abound. For the cadre of recent arrivals – with a dedication to setting spending priorities that their more experienced colleagues sometimes lack – the full story of American science remains either unread or unheard.

A few key points can start the process.

If you are a believer in American exceptionalism, you must become a science adherent: Science has been the prime driver of the American economy for more than half a century. Science won World War II, and science has protected our men and women in uniform who have served in combat ever since.

If you are a believer in market principles and entrepreneurship, you must become an admirer of America’s scientific enterprise: Research, as we perform it in the United States, is a cutthroat business. It represents a marketplace of the best ideas, and with few exceptions, only the soundest concepts can survive the scrutiny of peer review for very long.

If you are a smart investor who wants to cut the federal deficit, you should place a large bet on science: Economists such as Michael Boskin, Robert Solow, Paul Romer and the late Edwin Mansfield, who studied the return on federal research spending, all concluded that the financial return is positive and large, from 25 percent to more than 60 percent. Getting our fiscal house in order is imperative, but reducing research funding to do so is a poor strategy.

If you are a person of faith, you need to know that many scientists are as well: Isaac Newton, the progenitor of classical physics, was a noted theologian. And among American Nobel laureates, William D. Phillips, who received his physics prize in 1997, is unabashed about his religious commitment. So, too, is Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and recipient of the 2008 National Medal of Science, who is a guitar-playing evangelical Christian.

Finally, if you are a human rights advocate, you ought to recognize that American physicists have long been involved in promoting freedom in totalitarian countries: The American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, established in 1976, for example, is widely known for its human rights activism in the former Soviet Union, China and Iran.

In an era that disdains patience in capital markets, the task of supporting long-term scientific research falls to the federal government. Science, by its nature, is a nonpartisan endeavor. And it should enjoy bipartisan support. Congress owes the American public no less.

Michael S. Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.