Uncle Sam: Scientist

Lisa A. DuBois
Published: January, 2009

During the last century, America soared to the top of the world in science and technology. The United States outstripped all other countries in the number of science-related Nobel prizes awarded, in bringing new biotechnical products to the market, and in the amount of money spent on basic research.

Here, at the beginning of the 21st century, however, Uncle Sam’s position of strength is in peril, hamstrung by the triple-whammy of reduced federal funding for basic research, a flagging biotech industry, and a public education system so rife with inadequacies that it is failing to turn on young people to careers in the sciences.

Ironically, at the same time that the United States is trying to hold on to its frontrunner status, countries like China and Singapore, among others, are muscling up and making massive federal commitments to support research and technology. These nations are banking on a concept that some now see as the backbone of economic wealth in the new century: innovation. Investment in innovation creates new industry, strengthens the national education system and improves the well being of the citizenry at large.

Ellen Wright Clayton, M.D., J.D., Director of the Vanderbilt Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, cites creativity.
Photo by Neil Brake
Competition from foreign countries for innovative discovery should be a healthy phenomenon. The problem is that America seems to be on the verge of conceding the race. “America is losing its innovation edge with profound implications for our security and prosperity as a nation,” corporate consultant and author John Kao, M.D., MBA, told The Huffington Post last year.

“The genius of the American system is the ability to create new things based on new knowledge,” adds Ellen Wright Clayton, M.D., J.D., professor of Pediatrics and Law at Vanderbilt University.

“And if we don’t have that, then I think it really affects the vitality of the country. I think that it really is based on creativity, and without that, the heart’s gone.”

J. Michael Bishop, M.D., chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), is optimistic that, given its past, the nation will rise to the challenge of its future – in biomedicine as well as the equally competitive areas of engineering and computer science.

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