The bulk of the problems we face are ultimately due to ignorance: lack of knowledge and understanding at one level or another. This has always been the case in the past, and will certainly continue to be so in the future.
Science is the nemesis of ignorance, and ignorance is our single biggest enemy. Ignorance has been attacking us for ages and it is so ever present that we often forget that it's there. Broad-based support for science, and the public awareness and appreciation of it, are essential if we are to have a future. There is no single overwhelmingly pressing sub field or sub-issue. We need it all, we need it now, and we need everyone to understand it as deeply as possible.
We still die from diseases we don't know how to cure, or even worse that we could easily prevent. We may even fail to follow up avenues of research that could show success due to ignorance of basic biology.
We pollute our planet or are dependent on other countries for energy because we don't know how to do any better, or we fail to understand the consequences of our actions. Perhaps worse, we fail to appreciate techniques that we already have which can produce power cleanly and eliminate nuclear waste.
We treat each other with hatred or disrespect because we fail to understand different cultures and customs. We harm ourselves with dangerous chemicals because we don't know enough to keep away from things that will ultimately hurt us.
With this in mind, and trying to capture some of the Zeitgeist, we propose that the US launch a vigorous "War on Ignorance". Funding comparable to that of the Wars on Drugs and Terror should be funneled into an aggressive counterstrike against the things that wound us or hold us back most.
We need better schools and a uniform and high standard of education for everyone, better science in the media, better public education (including about diet, health, drugs, sex, and everything else we so often remain silent about, making safe harbors for the Axis of Ignorance), and more money for both basic and applied research.
So let us arm the people—all of them—as well as we can. Arm them with knowledge, so that they become productive, law-abiding, tax-paying members of society. Arm them so that they may live with hope and dignity, and contribute to the good of all.
Leave them without it, and we'll have a society governed by irrationality and fear. It's an old saying that knowledge is power, and this is truer now than it's ever been. Ignorance, as always, remains our biggest foe. Focus on taking that one out, and the rest will follow.
Physicist, Matthews Distinguished University Professor
Coauthor (with John Swain) of syndicated column "Science Briefs"
Physicist, Northeaster University
Coauthor (with Stephen Reucroft) of syndicated column "Science Briefs"