There was a rare golden winter sunset over the grounds of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., and I was talking on the phone to my colleague Eric Cornell.
He was actually in the other part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the part moved to Boulder, Colo., by President Dwight Eisenhower, and we were groaning about the imminent closures of the labs we were working in. Because of the budget impasse between President Bill Clinton and the Congress — led then by Newt Gingrich — most of the federal government was being furloughed without pay. I joked, a bittersweet joke at best, that the auburn hue of the sky reminded me of a scene in “Gone with the Wind.” Was this the sun setting on U.S. government science?
It was a bad time for the staff there. I was only a visitor, so I could be a little more sanguine about the awful mess. I can remember, though, the despondency of an extraordinary group of scientists, locked out of their labs by a system willing to stop their work and their pay to prove a point. What an outrageous insult to people who served the republic for many years.
Yet behind the despair there was also a cold realization that many people either did not know about, or did not care about, science, even the kind Eric did, honored as it was by the Nobel Prize committee. It can be very hard to learn just how little others care for something that is precious to you. Some of my colleagues’ faith in the American government did not survive that cold bath of reality.
Thank the Lord, the great American public started to see that this D.C. punch-up was truly bad stuff, and the Congress simply had to move on the budget. In the end, it wasn’t expertise that forced U.S. public services such as science to run again but the ordinary citizen losing patience.
The fiercest language I heard was from a middle-aged man from Iowa on his first visit to his nation’s capital. He was stopped from climbing up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when the only officer on duty told him it was closed, including the washrooms. He hadn’t saved for a trip of a lifetime to be shut out of the American Dream. You should have heard him let fly.
That was then. I came home to Britain and have spent a lifetime in British science, but I still keep in touch with my American science friends and colleagues. But now I see a big problem emerging for the scientific establishment in the United States as policies emerge from Washington that remove support and tax breaks for science and those students who hope to dedicate their lives to it. And I fear the source of the problem is not an American one, although the president is bringing it out, in the way that seems to be his gift to the world.
At its core, the real problem is one of resentment and suspicion, the pernicious idea that people who do postgraduate degrees receive a benefit and give nothing of value back.
Nothing could be further from the truth, but that doesn’t seem to stop the story. So, let’s think. Who does science? Who are these scientists anyway?
When I became a research student, a postgraduate research student, at the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University, I soon realized that doing science is a very practical matter. Yes, you spend a good deal of your time studying more advanced theory than you did as an undergraduate. But once engaged in testing some sophisticated ideas, say in quantum theory, there is no time to have your head in theoretical clouds. You will spend many of your days knee-deep in designing, building or operating equipment to do it. The balance between practical work and the design and direct operation of an experiment will vary, but you, the student, will have many hours doing research.
And what about the benefits? Isn’t all this research just self-indulgent? Definitely not. Scientific study could delve into new lightweight materials for electric cars or aerospace. It could be in new imaging techniques for prenatal care, new food production techniques, virtual reality. Whatever you think society needs, in some corner of a lab there is a research student, guided by a senior academic, trying to find it.
And another thing: Research students don’t just study, they are not just trained to do research, they actually do it. And, listen up. Mr Trump, it is not they alone who benefit. We all do.
The research students of the world are a massive part of the research capabilities of the world. Whether homegrown Brits or international students seeking an educational visa, they are a massive part of the world economy. The smart economies encourage both.
So, if the United States decides to tax a tuition waiver from a college as an individual benefit, I realize that we simply don’t get it. Actions like this focus only on student benefit and not on the good they do for the rest of us. American students get a tuition waiver if they go on to do research or teaching. Without the training they receive, they would not be able to do it and then everyone loses.
Much of the great innovation that has driven the world economy came not from aged individual scientists but from teams of all ages, including — crucially — students working on their PhDs. Anything that makes it harder for the brightest and best to join this enterprise is folly.
Being a research student — a graduate student in American parlance — is a damned hard thing to do. It was certainly one of the most anxious and toughest times of my own life. The richest universities may be able to respond, but under the new Trump plans, even the endowment income to fund scholarships will be hit at some colleges and universities. Wealthy universities will increase stipends to compensate for lost earnings. Smaller, less well-off colleges will not.
Why would America do this? After all, it’s a great move if you want to abandon a key pillar of the the nation’s advantage on the world stage.
China has a growing number of wonderful laboratories and would love to have more talented people from around the world. The Chinese have already said they want to be the biggest recruiter of international students, and the quality of what they have to offer is rapidly accelerating. Meanwhile, the U.S. travel ban has done its worst, so these latest measures will add to the damage.
So, it must be something else, like political advantage.
In Britain, we live in an age of frustration, despite our national affluence. The gap between the educated and those who have not had that benefit is widening. Maybe people just see the paintings on the wall of a college and think “privilege.”
Universities are not only places of quadrangles, intrigue, murder and port. In fact, the place with the pictures on the wall is just where the scientists come to celebrate after the toil in the basements — and it was a basement in Oxford for me — to advance knowledge.
What begins in America has a habit of spreading to Britain. We may be incredulous at President Trump, but our own country has had reductions in science spending for a number of years and the difficulty of funding research is biting. Add to that fears of the loss of funding, participation and mobility of scientists because of Brexit, and many British scientists are worried.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Tides can turn. Political leaders can decide, as Margaret Thatcher did, that science matters and that it will do everything in its power to seize its advantages. Our own politicians talk of investment and industrial strategy with innovation at its heart. Let’s hope these are more than words. We are blessed with gifted scientists and eager students, but if we do not support them, we will lose an advantage that will hurt us all.
Professor Sir Keith Burnett is vice chancellor of the University of Sheffield, a public university in Britain, and president of Britain’s Science Council.