Speaking For Science & Engineering | March 30, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 13 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 13 | p. 53 | ACS Comments
Issue Date: March 30, 2009

Speaking For Science & Engineering

By Bruce Bursten, Immediate Past-President
Department: ACS News
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Americans need to grasp the roles science and technology play in their everyday lives.

Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.
—John Dewey, "The Quest for Certainty," 1929

IN 2008, I was deeply honored to serve as president of the American Chemical Society. It was an exciting and daunting time to focus on the broader context in which we practice our science and engineering. As a nation, we experienced the yin and yang of suffering through a once-in-a-generation economic collapse and coming together to elect our first African American president, who called us all to the "audacity of hope."

The U.S. is moving forward in stormy waters potentially more unsettled than any since the Great Depression and the Second World War. The tests we face in energy, climate, economy, environment, and foreign policy are substantial. Only with bold (and perhaps even audacious) efforts can we consider options, embrace opportunities, and overcome our generation's crises.

On Dec. 15, 2008, I was honored to join Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), other prominent members of Congress, and a select group of 20 leaders from academia, industry, and government in a forum titled "Renewing Our National Commitment to the Physical Sciences and Energy Research." Over two days at Princeton University, we discussed a long-term future for U.S. innovation and competitiveness. Our group, which included two scientists who shortly thereafter were named to prominent roles in the new federal Administration, unanimously agreed that investments in scientific infrastructure, research funding, and intellectual capital development are critical if we are to meet the challenges our nation faces.

The timing for realizing such investments may never be better. During the past three years, we've seen the publication of "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," President George W. Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative, and congressional passage of the America Competes Act. Each urged investment in scientific research and education. This year, Congress included $22.6 billion in the economic stimulus package for R&D and additional investments in science education to return some of the momentum to the long-range investment strategies in these plans. The funding will allow us to complete Department of Energy and National Institute of Standards & Technology facilities; purchase equipment; fund DOE, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and NIST grants; and increase funding of the scholarships that bring the best and brightest to K–12 science classrooms.

Yet clouds remain on the horizon as we face deficits, the need for immediate job creation, and demands for pet priorities. Too often policymakers falsely choose between advanced technologies and basic research. Science and engineering must address both in a symbiotic fashion. Without investments in advanced technology, we will fail to capitalize on existing basic research. Conversely, basic research is the critical fuel of all advanced technology, and failure to invest today in long-term research to fund a near-term demonstration project is dangerously shortsighted.

THE DEBATE is not jobs today versus jobs in 10 years. Research grants pay salaries and buy equipment now. Lab construction involves thousands of jobs in high-value construction of the U.S.'s scientific infrastructure. The bonus of investing in science is that it pays today and tomorrow.

Chemists, chemical engineers, and other practitioners of the chemical sciences must continue to push for the critical steps to right the ship of our nation. Despite authorizations for strong investment in the sciences in 2007 and generous funding through special one-time bills such as the recent stimulus package, sustainable funding has not materialized through the normal appropriations process. This has led to a disturbing pattern of feast and famine that is not conducive to ongoing research.

We must urge policymakers at all levels to continue support for science. Tell opinion leaders your story. Explain how you came to the sciences, the role of government funding, and your daily efforts to make the world a better, more sustainable place. There might never be a more important time to share the ACS Vision Statement, "Improving people's lives through the transforming power of chemistry." More than ever, we need to take leadership in transforming our world.

We must also discuss R&D with our neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Americans need to grasp the roles science and technology play in their everyday lives, among them creating new jobs, cleaning the environment, developing sustainable energy, and understanding climate change. The quality of our science and technology will determine U.S. competitiveness in the global marketplace and ultimately the quality of our future.

There is a vibrant new sense of commitment to the U.S.'s future today. As scientists, we must help our fellow citizens understand the challenges ahead and the role of scientific research and education in the solutions. ACS wants to help you play your part in ensuring the future of scientific opportunity and the solution of our national and global challenges. Please join the ACS Legislative Action Network at act4chemistry.org and make your voice heard through this year that may prove so critical to our future.

The U.S. is set apart historically by its vast imagination and innovation. Committing now to the hard work and optimism to harness that imagination will ensure a bright future for many generations to come. Please join me in this critical journey.


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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