United for Peace of Pierce County

Hank Berger: Spiritual and Philosophical Issues


Is the West suffering from a loss of will? or an excess of it?

William Brody, the president Johns Hopkins University, complains that "We are losing our collective will to fund basic science" in a piece published Thursday in London's Financial Times.  --  "[T]he U.S. Department of Defense's basic research budget" he writes, "once the major American source of funding for this kind of research, has been shrinking for more than two decades."  --  Could it be, though, that this is through an excess of will, as represented by the military adventurism of the U.S. as it yields to imperial hubris, and not through a failure of will?  --  The DoD is now straining to maintain its gargantuan military establishment on money it is obliged borrowed from some of the very countries it regards as long-term adversaries, even as its policy-making apparatus has fallen captive to ideologically willful fanatics who think "deficits donít matter" and that the U.S.'s "unipolar moment" can be extended indefinitely  --  an obvious fallacy to a non-fanatical mind that has studied history.  --  The problem of the West is not a lack of will (an idea, interestingly, that obsessed the principal architect of the post-WWII U.S. national security state, Paul Nitze [1907-2004]). -- The West's fundamental problem in this era, in our view, is a lack of vision that is linked to its domination by an institution that has now escaped all known means of control: the Corporation, which, in its neoliberal guise "has driven a culture mad," as W.H. Auden wrote in "September 1, 1939": ". . . blind skyscrapers use/Their full height to proclaim/The strength of Collective Man,/Each language pours its vain/Competitive excuse:/But who can live for long/In an euphoric dream;/Out of the mirror they stare,/Imperialism's face/And the international wrong."  --  William Brody may be said implicitly to endorse this analysis in the solutions he prescribes: shed "the shackles of short-term profitability"; invest more in universities; and spend more on government research.   --Hank.

Comment & analysis


By William Brody

Financial Times (UK)
August 18, 2005

http://news.ft.com/cms/s/c19578b4-1012-11da-bd5c-00000e2511c8.html (subscribers only)

When Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, visits India, as he did in April, and tells business associations there that a priority of his government is to strengthen co-operation between India and China in high-technology ventures, the U.S. and Europe need to pay attention. Mr. Wen said of this fledgling partnership: "For a grander sight, climb to a greater height." It was was clear from his message that he was not talking about tourism.

American and European economies face an unprecedented challenge to their technological leadership of the past two centuries. Yet researchers in industry, academia, and government are playing it safe. In the U.S., the kind of freewheeling basic research that spawned new industries -- from genetic engineering and the integrated circuit to wireless telephony and e-commerce -- is already in serious decline.

Industrial basic research has failed to demonstrate a return on investment that satisfies the ravenous appetite of financial markets for short-term earnings growth. As a result, companies have been directing capital to applied research and development, rather than basic invention and innovation.

In the U.S., university basic research has withered in many important fields, especially in the physical and information sciences and engineering. And the runaway federal budget deficit is likely to retard and even reverse recent growth in medical research funding. In Europe, the European Union's proposed seventh framework program expects to spend 67.8bn euros on R&D from 2007 to 2013. But only one-sixth of this is targeted for basic research. In May, more than 5,000 French scientists took to the streets of Paris and other cities to protest at what they see as their government's abandonment of fundamental research priorities.

We are losing our collective will to fund basic science. When these investments may not pay off for 20 years or more, we often forget why we need to make them in the first place. Mutual funds now hold stock for as short a time as eight months. Is it any wonder investors have no interest in backing basic research for the long term?

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Defense's basic research budget, once the major American source of funding for this kind of research, has been shrinking for more than two decades. The DoD's funding agency -- the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- has created entire industries in which the U.S. is dominant, including semiconductors, software, materials sciences, and computer networking. Companies including Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems would not exist were it not for DoD-supported research at Stanford University more than 25 years ago on the DARPANET, the precursor to the internet.

The priority must be to rekindle a spirit of innovation. This requires a cadre of talented scientists and engineers and an environment that supports the funding of high-risk ideas. Both of these essentials are in decline -- particularly in the U.S. -- although innovation is more important than ever. When countries such as India and China can provide so much cheap labor, it is obvious that our only competitive advantage is ingenuity.

How do we reinvigorate the creative energy that has served us so well for more than 200 years? Let us start by making three fundamental, yet simple, changes. First, shed the shackles of short-term profitability. Remember "patient capital"? We need to resurrect it and can start by offering enhanced tax incentives for companies to invest in higher-risk basic research with longer-term pay-offs.

Second, strengthen our research universities to train more graduates in science and engineering. In the U.S., where much of the cost of higher education is borne by the students and their families, this might require government scholarships and grants for science and engineering students. In Europe, where publicly funded universities dominate, perhaps other incentives are needed.

Finally, increase government spending for basic research. We were once expert at developing "the next new thing." Let us get back on track. We should start with a modern "man-on-the-moon" project: developing practical alternatives to fossil-based fuel sources.

The knowledge we possess today will not punch our ticket to the world economy of the future. This is a flight with no discount fares. The alternative is to slip into economic irrelevance. We need to ask: "Where are we aiming for? What destination will we choose?"

--The writer is president of the Johns Hopkins University, the co-founder of three medical device companies and co-chairman of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness's National Innovation Initiative.


"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."

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