"Science is Good for You": Ray Orbach on the Case for Science

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Publication date: 
13 April 2005

Earlier this year, Office of Science Director Ray Orbach made a speech at the AAAS Fellows Breakfast entitled, "The Case for Science: Economic Growth, Scientific Literary and Intellectual Excitement." Orbach cited this speech at a meeting last week of the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/055.html.) Selections from his remarks follow; the full text of his speech may be found at. http://www.science.doe.gov/

"Congress will have to decide upon budget priorities within a tight fiscal discipline. The future years do not look much better as this nation works to pare the budget deficit to half its current value. How science will fare, both within the Administration and in Congress, depends on us, on you and me, and our ability to convince this nation of the importance of science.

"We are not without arguments to make this case. For me, they rest upon three pillars: economic growth, scientific literacy, and intellectual excitement. Each is a critical element for our society, and you contribute to all three.

"Economic growth since World War II has depended upon contributions from science across the industrial spectrum. Fully 50% of that growth has arisen from developments easily attributable to the scientific enterprise. Although economists are loath to pin the precise number down, it is widely accepted that, as Nobel Laureate Robert Solow put it, ‘T]echnology remains the dominant engine of growth, with human capital investment [that is to say education] in second place.' From his December 8, 1987 Nobel Prize lecture: ‘…Technological progress, very broadly defined to include improvements in the human factor, was necessary to allow long-run growth in real wages and the standard of living…. Gross output per hour of work in the U.S. economy doubled between 1909 and 1949; and some seven-eighths of that increase could be attributed to ‘technological change in the broadest sense' and only the remaining eighth could be attributed to conventional increase in capital intensity…. The broad conclusion has held up surprisingly well in the thirty years since then… …[E]ducation per worker accounts for 30 percent of the increase in output per worker and the advance of knowledge accounts for 64 percent….

"Or, in other words, Science is good for you. Support of science, the basis of technological growth, is a necessary investment for fully two-thirds of economic growth, according to Solow. This message needs to be heard far and near. We are not asking for a handout. We are the fuel of economic prosperity for this country.

"Science provides much of our intellectual nourishment. The excitement of discovery, from relativity to quantum mechanics to genomics to cosmology, pervades not only our psyche but our very language. Quantum leap, chaos, uncertainty, relativity, the big bang, and even E=mc2 have all entered our modern vocabulary -- though they tend to get misused or misunderstood. In National Science Foundation (NSF) surveys conducted since 1979, about 90 percent of U.S. adults report being very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies. However, only half of NSF survey respondents knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs, that it takes the Earth one year to go around the Sun, and that electrons are smaller than atoms. Only one-third could adequately explain what it means to study something scientifically.

"Scientific literacy is an essential task to which we must all contribute. The future of our society depends upon an understanding of the scientific method. Otherwise, we shall be bedeviled by quackery, and our ability to adapt to our rapidly changing technological environment will be at risk."

"Yet, 42% of scientists do not engage in any form of public outreach. We must continue to confront scientific illiteracy, to press for the scientific method in place of superstition. This organization, the AAAS, has proven a powerful voice in that enterprise. The beauty of science, its import, and its logic have much to contribute to our national heritage. All of us are teachers. We must continue to show the way."

"One aspect I would like to emphasize is the tremendous impact of science and technology on our daily lives. Think of how we communicate with one another today, and compare it with Einstein's day. Think of how and with whom we do business: more and more, the world of commerce is becoming globally integrated.

"We owe all of this to the fantastic advances in science that have occurred in the last hundred years, advances in basic science inevitably leading to major applications and technology. The World Year of Physics is giving us an opportunity to tell this story, not only about physics itself, but through its interaction with other sciences as well. I believe that we should continue to tell this story not only this year, but next year, and the year after, and the year after that."

Orbach summarized his remarks as follows:

"The three imperatives of economic growth, scientific literacy, and intellectual excitement, if properly understood by our society, will benefit us all. But we must make clear how we contribute to each, providing a rationale for increased support for science. Failure to do so will doom our fields to stagnation, isolation, and decay during the difficult budget times ahead. Success will attract the level of support that can fuel another renaissance of science in this century. Let us tell the world how much it depends on, and is influenced by advances in science, and how much it needs to continue this advance in order to prosper economically and intellectually."

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