Dear Mr. President:
As you no doubt recognize, your scientific advisor is essentially a soothsayer. This individual is called upon to make key predictions about different aspects of the scientific enterprise, enabling the President to make appropriate decisions for the benefit and welfare of the American people. To assure you of my qualifications for this position, I will go out on the proverbial limb and make three specific predictions that you will find to be borne out by future events.
First, I predict that all the other applicants for this position will urge you to increase federal funding for science. Second, every applicant will make a special case for increased funding for the scientific field in which he or she specializes. The biologists will plead for more money for biomedical research, the physicists for particle research, and the psychologists for behavioral studies. This is not to belittle the worthiness of such advice. All branches of science can make good use of more funding, and who better to make a case for a particular field than an expert in that field.
Before providing you with my third prediction, allow me to identify what I consider to be the most significant problem in science today. In my opinion, our nation needs to get more of our young people interested in pursuing a career in science.
We are just beginning to unravel the secrets of the universe, from subatomic particles to the molecular cues that guide the building of the brain. As Cole Porter wrote: "the best is yet to come,"and I believe you will agree with me Mr. President that it is vitally important for America to lead the world in this effort. Regretfully, there has been a pronounced downturn in the number of young Americans choosing to dedicate their lives to science. As I travel around the country giving talks at our leading universities, it is readily apparent to me that more and more graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are from abroad. This is to be expected since at present we are the world's leader in scientific research. But, I believe that it would be a grave mistake for us to rely on foreign talent for our future scientific breakthroughs. For one thing, there is no guarantee that these individuals, whose costly training was paid for by the American taxpayer, will remain in this country. It is also shortsighted to assume that foreign scientific talent will be drawn to our shores for evermore. Without in any way discouraging the world's best young minds from coming to the United States to do science, we must come up with a strategy to encourage the best and the brightest in our nation to do the same.
My first recommendation to you, Mr. President would be to budget a relatively small amount of money for a program that might be termed "GWB Science Allstars of the Future." The program would annually select 1000 high school seniors and 100 college seniors with outstanding potential for future scientific achievements. (It might be prudent to distribute the number of nominees and subsequent winners in proportion to the congressional seats held by each of the 50 states, but others are better suited than I to deal with such matters.) The selection committee could be comprised of science teachers as well as preeminent scientists from industry, government and universities. A key aspect of this program is the prize: $100,000 to each high school senior and $1,000,000 to the college counterparts. The total annual cost of the program (including administration) would be less than $250 million, while its impact would be dramatic and long lasting. With serious prize money on the line science would no longer be just for the "weird" kids. Indeed, doing science would be seen as cool. With the right kid of publicity the GWB Science Allstars would become national celebrities, on par with sports heroes. One can even imagine rap songs describing the travails and triumphs of particularly charismatic young scientists.
This brings me to my third prediction, Mr. President. When the young people in our nation get as much money for scientific achievement as NBA draftees, the entire educational enterprise in this country will be raised to a level unprecedented in the history of the world. This could become the greatest the legacy of your presidency, perhaps even rivaling our eventual victory in the war on terrorism, and at a cost of much less than that a single stealth bomber.
Leo M. Chalupa
Professor of Ophthalmology and Neurobiology
University of Irvine