Science Directions

Efforts are under way to double the National Science Foundation (NSF) budget over the next decade. The impetus for this effort is the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), put forward by the White House in early 2006 and now showing its influence in the appropriation bills being drafted for 2008.

The gathering storm

Much of the energy for the ACI derives from the National Academy of Sciences report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Also known as the Augustine Report, it proposes that the key to sustaining American competitiveness and a bright economic future is an increased investment in science education and in science and engineering research.

This would seem to be good news for those of us who worry about the federal investment in basic research. Indeed, the Augustine Report specifically recommends that the federal investment in long-term basic research be increased by 10percent each year for the next seven years. The principal beneficiary would presumably be NSF.

The Augustine Report spells out that "special attention should go to the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and information sciences, and to Department of Defense basic-research funding." That's good news for the physical sciences, but what about the social, behavioral and biological sciences? This is addressed in the report, which clarifies that "this special attention does not mean that there should be a disinvestment in such important fields as the life sciences or the social sciences."

The true storm

The Augustine Report and the ACI pin our hopes of economic prosperity on engineering and technology. Advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, computing technology, quantum mechanics and materials science are seen as the key to American competitiveness in a flattening global economy.

I understand the appeal in betting on technology as the economic engine of the future. After all, technological advances of the past 50 years are chiefly responsible for the flattening of the global economy. And technology is so cool-it produces tools and toys and faster and smaller ways of storing and sharing information beyond what we could have imagined just half a century ago.

My fear is that this preoccupation with technology offers false hope for the true storm gathering now on the horizon. It is a storm of epic problems caused largely bytechnology and by its human users-global warming, growing economic disparities and wasteful use of natural resources. The false hope is that technology can solve these problems. The truth is that people need to solve them, not technology.

When Americans compete

The logic of the ACI is that an increased investment in physical science, engineering and technology will make America more competitive and solve the problems we face. Yet, tools and technology are not what make a nation competitive. True competitiveness derives from the ability, aspirations, talents, creativity and motivation of human beings. A nation is only as competitive as its citizens. If our political and economic leaders really understood the source of American competitiveness, they would be investing in the sciences of human behavior. It should not be the American Competitiveness Initiative, it should be the Competitive American Initiative. Investments should not be made in more technology and engineering, they should be made in learning more about human cognition, motivation and behavior.

In framing the ACI, the White House recognized that the United States should be leading the worldin talent and creativity. This translates into more investment in education. The White House acknowledged enormous advances in our understanding of how children learn to read-due in large part to basic research in language development-but also that we have "little empirical research on how children learn mathematics." Perhaps a doubling of the NSF budget for behavioral and cognitive sciences is what we need to address this empirical shortfall.

Growth of the federal investment in science education and research is essential. Before we start selecting specific areas for increasing investment, let's get our priorities straight. Let's get a handle on where those investments will have the greatest impact and create the most needed advances. My own investment tip: Go with the science of human behavior-that's what we'll need to survive the gathering storm.