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Commentary: It's Not Too Late For Americans To Rekindle The Flame of Science

Nov 5, 2013

Madhusudan Katti
Credit Madhusudan Katti

America was once the scientific “City on the Hill”, investing its resources and its capital to improve the world’s physical, social and cultural infrastructure.  But in the 21st century America seems to have lost its moral compass in this regard.  In this week’s edition of The Moral Is, Fresno State Biology Professor Madhusudan Katti calls on all Americans to rekindle the commitment that for so long maintained America’s scientific dominance that served humanity so well.

This is a peculiar moment to be a scientist in America.

The United States has been the world’s leader in advancing the frontiers of scientific discovery and a powerful beacon attracting students seeking enlightenment through science from the far corners of the world.

That beacon was set alight by a generation of scientific geniuses, some born here, many migrating from Europe to escape the great wars of the 20th century. It burned fiercely in the decades following World War II when America donned the mantle, not only of the political and economic leader of the free world, but also its scientific and cultural leader.

That beacon, alas, began to dim towards the end of the 20th century, and has been allowed to flicker in the first decades of this one. Just as this age began to fulfill science’s promise, America, the leader that led us to this threshold, has faltered, and dropped the baton of scientific progress.

It was no accident that the beacon of science burned so brightly in America 50 years ago. It was an active choice by the American people, through their government, to fund the science and technology that established America as the world’s leader.

Yet, at the heights of that arc of progress, many Americans somehow decided—or were persuaded by forces of a new endarkenment—that paying taxes, and investing in public goods was somehow inimical to the American drive for freedom from tyranny. Government of the people, by the people, for the people bizarrely became painted as a tyranny that must be starved of taxes. It astonishes the world that these forces have succeeded in turning the US government’s lights off, quite literally this October, and starving higher education and science of the funding that made it the world’s leader.

It is no accident that the land that is home to the largest number of science Nobel Laureates also has the highest proportion of people among developed nations who don’t accept the facts of biological evolution. That the nation with the largest number of climate scientists, and the most comprehensive coverage of weather on television--with whole channels dedicated to it, is also home to the greatest number of climate change denialists.

It is not too late for America to relight the beacon of scientific discovery, to renew its commitment to invest in the public goods that made this country great. It is not too late for us to rediscover our heritage of government as a force for good when allowed—nay, made—to invest in the public goods that brought the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people.

That, one hopes, is one of the lessons learned from the recent government shutdown, which hit particularly hard the enterprise of science in this once—and hopefully again—beacon of enlightenment for the world.

It sure is a peculiar time to be a scientist in America, but it doesn’t have to remain so.

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.