Uncle Sam: Scientist  pg. 6

Jack Dixon, Ph.D., HHMI’s chief scientific officer and former dean for Scientific Affairs at the University of California, San Diego, agrees.

“I think it’s essential to be on the front-end of discovery,” Dixon says. “The molecular biology revolution, if you want to call it that, is based upon discoveries that happened in academic labs across the country. We have dozens and dozens of drugs and compounds on the market today that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had those early discoveries taking place in the United States.”

This view is not universally shared. Slipping in science should not affect the nation’s bottom line, some observers argue, because we can simply exploit discoveries made by others.

According to Christopher Hill, Ph.D., professor of public policy and technology at George Mason University, companies as diverse as Google and Wal-Mart have become wealthy not by applying research conducted in the United States, but “by structuring human work and organizational practices in radical new ways.”

In an article published in the policy journal Issues in Science and Technology in March 2007,  Hill maintained that the United States has already begun to move into what he calls a “post-scientific society,” one in which “the leading edge of innovation … whether for business, industrial, consumer, or public purposes, will move from the workshop, the laboratory, and the office to the studio, the think tank, the atelier, and cyberspace.”

Harvard economist Richard Freeman, Ph.D., agrees. He told The New York Times in April 2008  that Americans should worry less about their nation’s research status and more about “developing new ways of benefiting from scientific advances made in other countries.”

While it is true that, especially in this age of ubiquitous electronic communications, scientific advances made in one country are almost-instantaneously shared with the rest of the world, there still are strong arguments in favor of retaining a leadership position in research.

For one thing, a lively and well-supported scientific enterprise has characterized countries, dating back to ancient Greece, that have had a transformative impact on the world. “It’s not a prediction,” says Melton, “it’s sort of a fact, based on history, that if we don’t invest in science and education, we will become a second-rate country.”

For another, “homegrown” biomedical research can be more readily applied to solving the unique health challenges that emerge from the nation’s ethnic and genetic melting pot.

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