Gertrude Himmelfarb 2
A record of research discoveries in science and engineering stands as a legacy of Federal contributions to the life, health, security, and enlightenment of the U.S. citizenry. The innovations driving our economic prosperity have emerged, often unpredictably, from a bedrock of national investments in fundamental research made in years past. The Council on Competitiveness, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Federal Reserve Board last year all cited S&T research as good for business.3 Evidence mounts that research is a major contributor to U.S. productivity.
In 1971, the first commercial microprocessor was manufactured. Fourteen years later, Indicators highlighted instrumentation for advancing knowledge in science and engineering - spectroscopy, lasers, superconductivity, and monoclonal antibodies.4 Since then, discoveries, techniques, and refinements abound: materials such as synthetic polymers are used in products ranging from clothing to cars; tools such as the Hubbell and Gemini telescopes explore even beyond our solar system; particle beams probe the structure of matter at distance scales 100 billion times smaller than the size of an atom; and mathematical modeling helps us predict the probability of earthquakes and long-term weather phenomena such as El Nino, test ideas of the nature of matter, study traffic patterns and brain function, and assess economic and health risks.
A human resource base developed in our institutions of higher learning and employed in all regions and sectors of the U.S. has grown the capacity of the Nation's research workforce. Since 1973, the number of science and engineering researchers receiving support from at least one Federal agency nearly doubled (97 percent).5 Add to these federally funded researchers the contributions scientists and engineers make as educators, administrators, managers, and public servants, and the investment in people yields handsomely. Demand for such workers, at all degree levels, is projected to increase well beyond the rate for other occupations.6
The 21st century will be known for the melding of our human and science-based infrastructure. The infusion of information technology in our economy is revolutionizing communication as embodied in the Internet and "e-commerce," shrinking the world, creating wealth, and transforming daily routines.
Such impressive research-based capabilities are juxtaposed against a troubling reality: For more than two decades, surveys have shown that American adults have a high level of interest in scientific discoveries, new inventions, and technologies.7 Three of four perceive the benefits of scientific research to outweigh its potential harm. But no more than one in five Americans either comprehend or appreciate the value and process of scientific inquiry. While the public's confidence in science is high, for many it is a blind trust. Americans are deeply divided over the development and impact of several important technologies, some of which are discussed below.
The progress of S&T demands more of each of us. One peril is that technical virtuosity distances what most can observe from what a few specially equipped and trained can see and manipulate. Even if we are motivated to understand the implications of new knowledge, this requires more plain talk about risks as well as benefits and better explanations of why the latest breakthrough matters.8 Before citizens will embrace yet another marvel intended to ease, remedy, or otherwise improve life, they deserve information that will inform their thinking.