The US must produce goods as well as science

In a remarkable display of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate last June overwhelmingly passed legislation that would dedicate nearly $250 billion to scientific research. The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, including its centerpiece, the Endless Frontier Act, is designed to strengthen the country’s economy by ensuring that the U.S. continues to […]

In a remarkable display of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate last June overwhelmingly passed legislation that would dedicate nearly $250 billion to scientific research. The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, including its centerpiece, the Endless Frontier Act, is designed to strengthen the country’s economy by ensuring that the U.S. continues to be a great source of scientific development and technological progress.

The Endless Frontier Act is important, but supporting scientific research is only part of what we need to do. Production matters too, and in today’s world production can be as technical, long term and demanding as research itself.

Government support of science: A bit of history

In the U.S., we are used to the idea of being a leader in science, but that was not always so. Before World War II the U.S. strength was not fundamental science but rather manufacturing. This enabled us to produce tanks, bombers and warships in huge quantities for ourselves and our allies in World War II. But the war also taught us that traditional manufacturing alone was no longer enough. New technologies such as radar and atomic fission (the bomb) made a difference, and very little of the science behind them came from America.

The abrupt ending of the war by the atomic bomb led to a widespread public appreciation of the importance of science. That made it possible for Vannevar Bush, the president’s science adviser, to push successfully for the creation of the National Science Foundation to strengthen American science. It was Vannevar Bush who wrote the influential book, “Science the Endless Frontier” for which the current Endless Frontier Act is named. 

The agency Vannevar Bush advocated, the National Science Foundation, was created and was successful, allowing us to become leaders in science.

I recently received the 2021 National Science Board’s Vannevar Bush Award, and that made me think about the man and his work, and it prompted me to ask myself what Vannevar Bush might advocate in today’s world.                                                                                                           

Science now and science then 

The world has changed. Today science does not give the originating country as much of a head start in generating a new industry as it did in Bush’s day. Today scientists publish, interact and collaborate worldwide, so scientific advances are known to scientists in the same field around the world. This makes it possible for any nation having those scientists to use their knowledge in its own interests. 

In Bush’s day, the only nations that were scientifically developed were Japan and some countries in Europe, and their economies had been badly battered by the war. Today many more countries, including China, understand science and make use of it in their own national interests. As a result, it matters far less today where the original science is done.

A good example is semiconductors. Much of the research that led to semiconductors was done the United States. It earned the Bell Laboratories several Nobel Prizes. Although those discoveries were made here, we are far from being a leader in making semiconductors today.

Government support of production: Today’s imperative

Government supporting production is far from a new idea in America. When our fledgling nation was being formed, it had limited manufacturing ability. We emphasized raw materials; England emphasized manufacturing. This situation was seen by Congress as a threat to our newly won independence, Congress commissioned then Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to lead a controversial government effort to change this. Hamilton produced his famous Report On Manufactures. Some of his many recommendations were adopted despite strong opposition, and it helped strengthen manufacturing in America.

Today we have a problem with China because China steadily subsidizes production in industries that they have chosen to dominate. If some of these industries are critical to us, we too must act to defend our independence, and there is no shortage of effective ways to get our corporations to produce those goods in the U.S.

Whatever we do needs to be an ongoing effort. So, as we did when we established the National Science Foundation, NASA or the Department of Energy, we need to have an ongoing government agency with both the knowledge and the authority to take the steps that lead to the production of critical goods in this country.

We can expect strong opposition to any significant moves in this direction. Many of our corporations prosper through accepting subsidies to produce abroad. Many will require time to build up in the U.S. the complex manufacturing capabilities they now have abroad. But to remain an independent nation in the modern world, we must be able to produce goods as well as originate science. This means we must be willing to subsidize the production of critical goods in the U.S. when it is necessary.

To do this will require ongoing political will. If we have that political will, we can find many ways to act effectively. The result will be a country that is both more prosperous and more secure.

Ralph E. Gomory is well-known for his mathematical research and technical leadership. He has been awarded the National Medal of Science. For 20 years he was responsible for IBM’s Research Division, and then for 18 years was the president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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