U.S. Experts Bemoan Nation's Loss of Stature in the World of Science

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

NEW YORK, May 28 -- Some of the nation's leading scientists, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's top science adviser, today sharply criticized the diminished role of science in the United States and the shortage of federal funding for research, even as science becomes increasingly important to combating problems such as climate change and the global food shortage.

Speaking at a science summit that opens this week's first World Science Festival, the expert panel of scientists, and audience members, agreed that the United States is losing stature because of a perceived high-level disdain for science. They cited U.S. officials and others questioning scientific evidence of climate change, the reluctance to federally fund stem cell research, and some U.S. officials casting doubt on evolution as examples that have damaged America's international standing.

"I think there's a loss of American power and prestige that came about as a result of our anti-science policies," said David Baltimore, a biologist and Nobel laureate and board chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Raising questions about the science of evolution, he said, "leads to a certain disdain for American intelligence." He added, "What we need is leadership that respects science."

The panelists also expressed concern that science funding has not been a major issue for any of the presidential candidates. "The campaign so far has given too little attention to what science means for our own economy and our status in the world," said Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Nina Fedoroff, a plant molecular biologist who is Rice's science and technology adviser, said science in the United States "has really kind of died over a quarter of a century, even as the importance of science has grown."

Although the United States has long been the recognized global leader in science, Fedoroff said, that position is now being challenged by others, specifically China, which is raising its global profile. "They're educating 10 times as many students as we are," she said. "The next generation of scientists in other countries might not speak English."

Speaking about the global food crisis that has sparked unrest in some countries, Fedoroff said that genetically modified crops are one answer to shortages. But she said that "persistent misperceptions," particularly in Europe, about genetically modified foods has led to their underuse and even their prohibition as food aid in needy countries.

She and the other panelists said one impediment to wider use of genetically modified crops is suspicion of American motives. "We're in a delicate position," she said. "If we push biotech too much, it looks like . . . we're trying to protect our own economic interests."

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg opened today's science summit echoing many of the same themes. Bloomberg bemoaned a tendency toward "political science," which he called "the willingness to disregard or suppress scientific findings when they don't confirm to a predetermined political agenda."

Bringing the science festival to New York, Bloomberg said, will showcase the city as a hub of innovation. New York is known more as the site for the hit television series and new film "Sex and the City." But Bloomberg, who majored in engineering, called science "just as exciting, just as cool, just as cutting-edge" and said the festival will "make science in our city sexy."

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