The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U-Md. president: Why I march for science

University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh appears at a student-run hackathon. (John T. Consoli/U-Md.)

To enhance American health, security and prosperity, we need to renew the Enlightenment. Our scientific and technological strengths began with the Enlightenment ideal of a disciplined curiosity.

Our nation’s founders—heirs to the Enlightenment—thought of this as “natural philosophy.” Today, we call it science. Think of Benjamin Franklin in a lightning storm, kite in hand, learning about electricity.

Our founders sated their curiosity with science and the humanities, aiming to build a strong nation. Today, we need even more of their spirit to nourish our scientific enterprise. It rests on public support and understanding of how well universities conduct research and educate the next generation of citizens and leaders.

Consider the University of Maryland scientist who dared ask what happens when fruit flies take naps. After genetically altering the flies to get lots of sleep, their immune systems strengthened. Such research can suggest what happens in people.

When our social scientists began constructing one of the world’s most comprehensive terrorism databases, they built it with much more information than normally found in dossiers of individual bad actors. They were able to able to discover broader trends in terrorist activities.

Our bioengineers have learned to control cells with electricity, a discovery that may ultimately allow people to program their phones to treat diseases like diabetes.

To be worthwhile, research does not have to have a practical payoff. But good research often translates into valuable applications that improve the human condition.

The curiosity and virtuosity are dazzling. We are building robots that can learn, and we are improving how people learn foreign languages critical to national security. We are developing augmented-reality systems that may give doctors new diagnostic tools, while making strides in quantum computing that promise machines more powerful than we dared imagine.

Most of this enterprise flows from research universities. The work changes lives and creates businesses. In this sophisticated sandbox, our students prepare for and help create the future.

The modern university began with the Enlightenment, and grew rapidly in America with a push by President Abraham Lincoln. He launched our “land-grant” universities to bring the fruits of science, technology, and the liberal arts to the people. He also insisted that learning belonged to all—not just the privileged few.

The first fruits were agricultural—new farming techniques to fight hunger, as our researchers still do today. After World War II, the federal government unleashed competition by outsourcing research to universities, rather than doing it in-house. The integration of research with education created a pipeline of future scientists and citizens informed about science. Our research universities are a landmark of American civilization and the envy of the world.

Today, the federal government still funds most research and discovery. This has made America the world’s scientific and technological leader. However, recently proposed deep cuts to federal research funding put at risk the future of American science and its beneficent impacts on society.

On April 22nd, Earth Day 2017, scientists and supporters of science will march in Washington to protect the research that makes us safer, healthier, and more prosperous. The rallying cry: “Science not Silence.” I will march with them to speak out, celebrate and defend science and our research universities.

The flame of the Enlightenment strengthened America for the past 150 years. We must keep that flame burning in the 21st century.

Wallace D. Loh has been president of the University of Maryland at College Park since 2010.