The man who popularized Greek-style yogurt, Hamdi Ulukaya, is probably one of the only, if not the only, billionaire of recent years who does not owe his fortune to the government. Jeff Bezos does, Bill Gates does, Mark Zuckerberg does, along with dozens of others who have amassed fortunes in the digital age.
They are smart men all who have exploited opportunities, which would not have existed but for the government’s presence in science. I applaud individuals who build on government discoveries to make their fortunes.
But government-backed science, which has brought us everything from GPS to the internet, is in for a radical reversal, as laid out in the Trump administration’s budget proposal.
It was greeted with derision when it was released, with many hoping Congress will reverse it. However in the science community, in the halls of the National Science Foundation, in the facilities of the National Institutes of Health, and in the sprawling world of the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, there is fear and alarm.
There should be. There should be from the world of learning a great bellow of rage, too.
The Trump administration has declared essentially that the United States cannot afford to be wise, cannot afford to invent, cannot afford to cure or to minister, and cannot afford to continue the rate of scientific evolution, which has made science of the post-World War II period so thrilling, benefiting countless people.
The administration has identified 62 programs for elimination or severe cutbacks. It has done this in a mixture of ignorance, indifference and delusion. The ignorance is that it does not seem to know how we got where we are; the indifference is part of a broad, anti-intellectual tilt on the political right; and the delusion is the hapless belief that science and engineering’s forward leap of 75 years will be carried on in the private sector.
The broad antipathy to science, to learning in all but the most general sense, is the mark of the Trump budget proposal.
But science, whether it is coming from ARPA-E, (Advanced Projects Research Research Agency-Energy) or the National Science Foundation’s watering of the tender shoots of invention, the Department of Energy’s world-leading contribution to the Human Genome Project, or the National Institutes of Health’s endless war against disease (especially the small and awful diseases like Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and the rarest cancers) is the future. Without it, the nation is gobbling its seed corn.
In the Trump administration, there is money to build a giant wall but no money to surge forward into the future.
To the administration, as indicated in its budget proposal, the sciences and the engineering that flows from them is a luxury. It is not. It is the raw materials of peace and strength in this century and beyond.
To take just one of the follies implicit in the philistine budget, cutting funding for medical research will come just when there is need for more — research that if not funded by the government will not be done. New epidemics like bird flu, Zika and Ebola cry out for research.
Increasingly, the old paradigm that new drugs would come from the drug companies is broken. It now costs a drug company close to $2 billion to bring a new compound to market. That cost is reflected in new drug prices, as the companies struggle to recoup their investments before their drugs go off patent. Shareholder value does not encourage the taking of chances, but rather the buying up of the competition. And that is happening in the industry.
The world desperately needs a new generation of antibiotics. The drug companies are not developing them, and the bugs are mutating happily, developing resistance to the drugs that have held bacterial disease at bay since penicillin led the way 89 years ago.
Fighting the political folly that threatens science is the battle for America. In 50 years, without amply government-funded research and development, will we still be the incubator for invention, the shock troops against disease, the progenitors of a time of global abundance?
Our place in the world is not determined by our ideology, but by our invention. Sadly, the pace of invention is at stake, attacked by a particularly virulent and aberrant strain of governmental thinking.