When Americans think about U.S. leadership in the world, they often think of military power, famous presidents, or economic achievement. But they might be less likely to name an area in which the United States has led the world for decades: science.
From lifesaving vaccines for devastating diseases like smallpox and polio, to novel materials like semiconductors and superconductors, to robotic rovers that can explore Mars, science has made possible discoveries that revolutionized the world, and much of it started right here in the United States.
Think of what innovative research and development (R&D) has enabled us to do. We’ve discovered elementary particles and gravitational waves. We’ve built high-performance computers that can model everything from weather to polymers to nuclear fusion simulations. We’ve developed catalysts and processes to make new chemicals and materials. We’ve discovered fluorescent proteins that can be used as biosensors and developed techniques for high-throughput DNA sequencing and genome editing. We’ve developed GIS mapping techniques for precision agriculture and monitoring sensitive ecosystems. (And we’ve even built a computer that can win at Jeopardy.) Americans are unquestionably safer, healthier, and more prosperous because of our leading role in scientific innovation.
How did we do it? We built an unparalleled system of cooperation between universities, government labs, nonprofit research centers, and for-profit companies. We made sustained investments in R&D through federal institutions like the National Institutes of Health and our national laboratories. We developed strong intellectual property laws to make sure anyone with a revolutionary idea, from a garage inventor to a major corporation, can protect and market it. We attracted the best and brightest researchers and innovators through immigration laws that welcomed anyone willing to work hard and share their ideas with the world. We continue to encourage women and underrepresented minorities to seek scientific careers.
But today, when it comes to America’s scientific leadership in the world, our standing is at risk. That’s not just a matter of patriotic pride. It’s a matter of national security when states like Russia, Iran, and North Korea are upgrading their cyber capabilities with an eye on hacking our businesses and our elections. It’s a matter of economic security when the next Tesla emerges not from Silicon Valley but rather from Beijing. It’s a matter of health security when epidemics or biological threats outpace the ability of our national labs, universities, and first responders to react effectively.
That’s what’s at stake when we take science for granted. But troubling recent trends suggest efforts are underway in Washington to delete huge volumes of scientific data, slash funding for R&D, and alter American immigration policy in a way that puts our leadership and our values at risk. What should Congress do?
First, instead of eliminating critical data that brilliant minds in business and academia could turn into innovative products or services, Congress should require that the federal government continue to make that information available. Some data, like individually identifiable personal health information or confidential business secrets, should stay private. But many Americans don’t realize the extent to which the federal government gathers and disseminates a vast amount of data critical to business, local governments, and more, from the National Weather Service to the Census. That information belongs to all Americans. Barring a good reason, data should be open, transparent, and accessible, even when it might conflict with certain political worldviews or agendas. Erasing data and muzzling information is what dictators do. Congress shouldn’t tolerate that here.
Second, instead of arbitrarily slashing federal programs, Congress should continue to work on a bipartisan basis to secure long-term, sustained federal investments for R&D. That means not cutting programs just because they don’t deliver immediate results. There’s no quick fix for scientific challenges. We should also make it easier for private companies to take advantage of public R&D. Government alone can’t turn great ideas into game-changing inventions, but government does have a key role to play in convening and supporting leaders of all sectors who can.
Finally, instead of building walls and banning immigrants, which hurts our economy and our standing in the world with no positive impact on our security, Congress should push back on discriminatory bans and come together to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that makes it easier for innovators to invent and invest here. Albert Einstein was a refugee. Steve Jobs’ father was a refugee. All six of the U.S. Nobel Laureates in 2016 were immigrants. When we let fear of refugees and immigrants dictate public policy, we may well be stopping the next Einstein or Jobs or Nobel Laureate from calling the United States home.
That’s why I’m continuing to fight for open data, open minds, and open arms. Open data unleashes the innovative potential of the world’s brightest scientists and inventors. Open minds give us faith that long-term investments in scientific research will pay dividends we can’t even imagine today, just as they have time and time again. Open arms welcome those who want to study, start a business, and change the world as Americans.
When the United States turns its back on science, the world moves on without us. That makes us less safe, less healthy, and less prosperous. But when we open our data, our minds, and our arms, we unleash the power of science, technology, and innovation to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges, from climate change and water scarcity to nuclear non-proliferation and cyber hacking. That’s why when it comes to science or politics, I’ll choose science every time.