by Peter Bearse

Alarms are going off through the media, industry and the halls of government,
sounding loud warnings that the U.S. economy is in danger of losing its competitive
edge in the world economy and sliding into decline. The U.S. rebounded after
previous such alarms, following Sputnik in the '60's and the threat of "Japan
Incorporated" in the '80's. What about now? Before we can get a prescription, we
need a good diagnosis. What's behind the alarms? What are the core issues?

On the surface, the alarms point to certain facts, that foreign competitors are:

        > Graduating many more scientists and engineers;
        > Generating more patents;
        > Spending more on R&D;
        > Saving and investing much more in their own countries;
        > Increasing their productivity more rapidly;
        > Exporting many more manufactured goods; and
        > Growing their economies faster.

These are symptoms, not causes. The first three are most indicative because science
is now the basic force behind competitiveness. We used to point to technology as
basic, as if it had a life of its own apart from science. Technology was seen as a
source of products, of things that you could touch, smell, market and buy. Science?
What's that? A process? Like "basic research'? What good is it? Well, now we know,
as we see basic research opening up whole new lines of product development in areas
like biotech, nanotech and applied math. Simultaneously, time intervals that are
important factors of competitiveness are being sharply cut -- the time lags from
research to new product development and from new product development to markets. IS a process. So, to the extent that the key elements and overall
integrity of the process are undermined or constrained, the fertility of science is
reduced as a source of new technologies, product lines, etc. -- as a root source of
competitiveness. The key elements are shown below.


Openness   Questioning   Long-run perspective
Truthfulness   Dissent   Non-hierarchical
Accountability   Tolerance   Non-bureaucratic
Learning   Feedback   Evidence over Theory
Creativity   Innovation   Means over Ends
_____________               ________________               _________________


As you scan the elements above, consider two questions:

* What does "overall integrity" of the scientific process mean?
* What is it that makes the U.S. economy such a dynamic system?

"Integrity" means that the elements support or reinforce each other. Innovation --
the development of new products and new enterprises, for example, is helped by
creativity, openness and questioning. Innovation is also key to change and
adaptation in our communities and country. So it is one of the major keys to our
economy as a dynamic system. Other keys to dynamism involve:

> learning (constantly increasing the knowledge-base of our economy),
> feedback (key to learning from our mistakes and from each other),
> truthfulness (being able to deal with problems without lying about them or denying
> openness (of minds and organizations and subsystems), and
> Non-hierarchical/non-bureaucratic (arrangements within organizations and between

The U.S. scores high on all these indicators relative to competitor nations. The
main point of international competitiveness, however, is its dynamic quality; it's
increasing. The "ante" is being raised. Over the past 125 years, we upped the ante
on other industrial leaders, surpassing Great Britain, which used to be #1, early in
the last century. Now, other countries, striving to catch up with us with workforces
that are much hungrier than ours, are starting to up the ante on us. Some
forecasters predict that the U.S. will become #2 to China's #1 within 40 years. A
recent article in Newsweek entitled "How Long Will America Lead the World?" says:

    "be scared, very scared. (but) What we can do is take the best features of the
American system --     openness, innovation.and flexibility -- an enhance them,
so that they can respond to new challenges       by creating new industries, new
technologies and jobs, as we have in the past." [Fareed Zakaria, in the June
12th, 2006 issue]

Openness and innovation bring us right back to our table of elements. Look again and
ask: Why do we see less of the qualities essential to science in our society? The
answer is: because of our politics and our government. Consider "truthfulness." It
is built into the very practice, discipline, organization and structure of science.
One cannot make the same claim for politics. There are no adequate norms of
truthfulness "built into" the political process. Rather the opposite: Politicians
have incentives to lie.

Consider "means over ends." The dynamic of science -- the fact that science has
become the greatest engine for improvement of the human condition ever known -- is
directly attributable to its scrupulous attention to means over ends. The means are
a direct reflection of basic values. These include truthfulness, tolerance, respect
for knowledge, questioning, creativity and dissent. The latter three, especially,
are not honored by the political process. The cultures of politics and government
put a high premium on conformity, as in the prescription "go along, get along." This
is a lesson regularly administered to freshman legislators of either major party.

Consider "learning." What counts most is a quality called "social learning"-- the
ability of a community or country to evaluate real experience as a basis for
understanding and improvement. By contrast, in the arenas of politics and
government, we see so-called "program evaluation" honored mostly in the breach. We
see layer added upon layer of rules and regulations. We see government programs and
bureaus that are monuments to old politicians and their agendas, hidebound by
bureaucratic inertia and institutional arteriosclerosis. We see little recognition
of lessons to be drawn from the past. We see, in a nutshell, too little evidence
that politicians and government employees have built learning into their systems in
any way comparable to the ways this is built into the practices of the scientific

We could continue to contrast science vs. politics and government on each of the
elements, but our main conclusion is already apparent: the two major factors
affecting our lives -- science and politics/government -- are conflicting as well as
badly out of sync. The consequences are troublesome and dangerous. We have seen, for
example, two consequences arise from the political side. One has been to stereotype
the scientist in ways that feed popular fears, as in old movies from Frankenstein
on. As Jacob Bronowski, scientist-host of the first great TV series on scientific
themes, The Ascent of Man, reminded us: such a consequence would tend to poison the
political well itself, for "the popular picture of a scientist.lends itself to the
basic totalitarian tricks which exploit the insecurity of the ignorant." Thus, gaps
and contradictions between science and politics may threaten our democracy as well
as our competitiveness.

Another consequence is that politicians try to control what they do not understand.
This has been evident, for example, with several aspects of research into
microbiology, especially and most recently, stem cell research and other research
involving recombinant DNA or gene therapy. The politicians' knee-jerk reaction is:
REGULATE it! So, is it any surprise that other places in the world threaten to get a
jump on us, become leading centers of stem cell and related research and garner the
lion's share of the spin-off medical and economic benefits of such scientific

The major question of consequence, however, is one of far greater scope in the
future than is implied by the past. It is whether a political system so far out of
sorts with science can lead our country through the 21st century. The answer is NO;
the implications are manifold. What do you think?

                           PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., author of WE, THE PEOPLE: A
Conservative Populism [Alpha Publishing, 2004), 6/27/06.