Scientific exploration, believe it or not, is an imperfect science. Many products that eventually transformed everyday life have been the result of accidental discoveries that came from the simple act of exploring, of attempting to answer the seemingly unanswerable.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the United States led the world in such exploration, using curiosity to alter the world in which we live. Much of that can be traced to the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1958, which the New York Times described as being designed to “explore and develop any novel idea, regardless of whether it seems practical at the beginning.”
Simple, noble, ambitious — and yet those traits are being lost in modern America. As high-tech innovator Kevin Ashton wrote recently for Politico, “The U.S. government doesn’t invest in basic science and visionary technology anymore. Or, to be more precise, it does not invest like it used to.” The result: In 2005, China surpassed the United States as the world leader in high-tech exports; in 2009, Germany also passed the United States, and Singapore and Korea are poised to do so, as well.
The high-tech race, a race that the United States largely invented, is being lost — and the reason is an inexplicable backlash against science, technology and innovation in this country. The House committee on Science, Space, and Technology is chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who includes being a climate change denier among his anti-science positions. So does Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who chairs the Senate Environment Committee. Smith and Inhofe are entitled to their opinions, but their positions of power are an affront to the notion that having an open mind is essential to innovation.
As Joel Achenbach wrote in a cover story for National Geographic earlier this year: “We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretation of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts.”
Governmental investment is crucial to returning the United States to the forefront of exploration. As Ashton wrote for Politico: “In short, high-tech economies need both public and private money in order to thrive. Public money buys a deep foundation of basic science technology that private money builds on for decades.” Remember when President Barack Obama was chastised in some circles for saying, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that”? Scientific advancement fits into that assertion. Ashton wrote: “Apple, for example, found its first opportunities in the personal computer revolution, built on the integrated circuits that emerged from U.S. defense spending on ballistic missiles.”
The truth is that scientific exploration often leads to a destination that is beyond comprehension at the start of the journey. The space program of the 1960s resulted in unforeseen advancements that are still paying dividends today in kitchens and living rooms and offices throughout the world. But decades later, Americans have lost their curiosity. At the peak of the space program, scientific research and development accounted for more than 2 percent of the gross domestic product; today it is less than one-third of that, and a disturbing number of congressional leaders demonstrate little interest in reversing that trend.
At one point, the federal government supported the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. We all are wiser for it.