Chinese Super-Science

Robert Samuelson has an op ed piece in today’s WAPO on how China has become a science superpower. The piece was timed with the release of NSF’s Science Indicators annual report (currently unavailable due to the government shutdown). I was last in China six years ago and it was clear even then that the Chinese were aiming, not just to become a peer of the US, but to exceed it in all areas of science and technology. Since that visit, we have seen the Chinese leap forward in Astronomy (the largest radio telescope), quantum computing (the world’s only satellite-based quantum encryption system), biomedical research (clinical studies that have statistical power far beyond those in the west) and even ecology (with their distributed environmental sensor network).

At the same time, US investments in science and technology have been quite stagnant. For Fiscal Year 2018, President Trump proposed an 11% cut to the NSF. He proposed an even larger cut of 22% for the NIH. These proposed cuts follow years of essentially flat funding during the Obama administration.  From a GDP perspective it’s even worse! Countries like South Korea, Germany and Japan made larger investments in science relative to their economy size.

If this trend continues, China will become the essential nation from a science perspective. And the geo-political consequences of that could be dire. Leading in science historically has led to non-incremental advances that create strategic surprise (e.g. nuclear weapons, the Internet, lasers). Imagine a US President being told that our spy satellites have been hacked leaving us blind to missile launches. Or that the location of our nuclear submarines was now available in real time to our global competitors?

What can be done? For one thing, it’s useful to remember that in the process of creating a budget, the President proposes, but Congress disposes. It is essential to reach out to members of Congress and let them know how important science is to the security of this country. But even more importantly, it’s time to open the channels of communication between those who are skeptical of the value of science investment and science advocates (including practitioners). In a recent conversation with one of this country’s most prominent science advocates, it became clear to me that science has taken on a political label that is not helpful. Science should not be political. Otherwise, it will become just another special interest in the eyes of its stakeholders. And the future of science is too important for that fate.