Who here doesn't like science? Americans gape in wonder at pictures from the Mars rovers, dream of huge solar farms powering our homes, and get a creepy thrill from humanoid robots. Yet just at the moment when emerging economies are becoming scientific powerhouses, the United States is experiencing a vicious backlash against the pursuit of knowledge. Without a change of course, the once undisputed champion of research and development risks becoming a scientific and economic backwater.
The importance of science for innovation and growth seems self-evident, yet Americans are reluctant to put their tax dollars behind it. In a Pew Research Center poll in 2009, only 60 percent agreed that "government investment in research [was] essential for scientific progress." Last year, a poll by Research!America, a lobbying group for health-care research, found that a measly 24 percent of Americans strongly agreed that funding for scientific research should increase; 44 percent "somewhat" agreed. Americans do care more about medical research -- they like things that keep them alive -- but basic science in fields like physics and chemistry receives short shrift. And the news for education in the sciences is worse; in a Gallup poll from 2011, just 43 percent of parents said "not enough emphasis on math and science" was even a minor problem in their oldest children's schools.
This is a shame. As Lant Pritchett, an economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has noted, the greatest innovations and achievements of humanity are not spontaneous miracles. They are built upon a pyramid of knowledge accumulated by the mundane and unglamorous work of thousands of anonymous practitioners. Isaac Newton famously said that he had seen further by standing "on the shoulders of giants"; today, he would stand on the shoulders of countless ordinary scientists whose research would not necessarily be funded by the private sector.
Though the animus against science has recently achieved a higher political profile, the American attitude is nothing new. As Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his Pulitzer-winning 1962 treatise, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Americans have always shown more appreciation for inventors than for scientists. The inventor was the plucky maverick who refused to accept the status quo and became a self-made millionaire personifying the American dream. The scientist, by contrast, remained an egghead in a white coat, stuck in an ivory tower and removed from the daily concerns of regular people. To illustrate, Hofstadter compared Thomas Edison, an American hero then as now, to Josiah Gibbs, unknown to most Americans despite being the father of both modern physical chemistry and vector calculus, a man whom Albert Einstein called "the greatest mind in American history."
Hofstadter detected a strong current of anti-intellectualism militating against pure science, and he was fairly sure about the causes. Religious Christians saw science as a substitute, not a complement, for the teachings of the Bible. He quoted Billy Graham, the evangelist, who said that society had "substituted reason, rationalism, mind culture, science worship, the working power of government, Freudianism, naturalism, humanism, behaviorism, positivism, materialism, and idealism" for the Bible, to the detriment of morality and the soul. These are a lot of isms, but surely several of them have been essential components of the innovations that have raised American living standards in the past half-century.
Hofstadter also remarked on the anti-science strains of American business culture, which heralded the accomplishments of an uneducated person much more than those of a college graduate. Today, as gaps in earnings and employment between people of differing education widen -- the jobless rate for high school graduates is twice that for college graduates, who also earn 65 percent more -- the tension is still greater. It's no surprise that some among the less educated should have a deep desire to believe education is superfluous to success.