If you’re reading this, it’s because of science and technology.

You know someone who is not reading this, but should, and is looking around themselves at a room enabled by science and technology, thinking they’ve never benefited from science. It’s time to have a conversation with them.

It’s no longer possible to get away from science and technology. We simply no longer have the knowledge, stamina, or natural resources to go it alone as cavemen — you’d likely be dead in a month.

You have to understand that science is a process of continuously improving our understanding of the universe — created by who or what is irrelevant and unsolvable — the universe is everything we can know.

So really, if science is so important, what does the science say about how important science is? I’ve given a lecture on this for years now. Most of it derived from the Rising Above the Gathering Storm Report series issued by the National Academies of Scientists and Engineers to inform Congress. So here goes:

“While only four percent of the nation’s work force is composed of scientists and engineers, this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent.” ~Robert Solow, Nobel Prize in Economics ‘87

Go ahead and try; think about your job and try to understand what or if it would be without science and technology.

So if science and technology really is that important, how are we supporting basic science and technology in the US? Let’s go to the charts. These have been developed by the non-partisan National Academies and the National Science Foundation, who keeps records of this. First up, US R&D Spending by Source:

You’ll notice a strong upward trend. The overall output of the US, measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased 7x from $2000 BILLIONS in 1978 to over 14000 BILLIONS in 2010. The chart above increase roughly 7x over that same period but in MILLIONS. The percent of our GDP spent on science and technology has declined from 3.5 % in 1978 to 2.8% in 2010. That’s a decline of 60% over the last 40 years. but it gets worse when we dig a little deeper. Notice that the majority of the increase in funds has come in Federal and Industry spending. Let’s breakdown where these funds are going. First the Federal: 

The only topics that have seen a significant increase are defense and health, which are arguably predicated by the other sectors. Think we invest heavily in Energy R&D? We spend HALF has much now was we did 30 years ago. We can solve our energy problems but it will take investment. This all could be fine and industry will take care of the rest right? Let’s see:

TRL in this plot stands for Technology Readiness Level — a non arbitrary measure of how prepared a technology is to enter society. For example, “Basic” R&D is trying to understand new physical principles, like antimatter, in order to make a technology of some kind out of them. “Applied” R&D is formulating a potential technology concept — making something in a lab that functions as a widget. “Development” R&D is all about packaging and increasing the reliability of the product for customer use. That’s not what research labs or universities do. That’s a big problem. We’re no longer investing in the basic understanding and applied research necessary to realize totally new technology concepts. Need a more applied example? Take Steve Jobs’ invention of the iPod:

You can see that:

  1. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPod, Apple was in the right place at the right time to integrate a number of basic and applied technologies together into realizing the iPod.
  2. A huge amount of Basic and Applied Federal R&D from many sources, over many decades, contributed to the technology required to realize the iPod.

Otherwise we’d still be talking into those Bell Lab handsets wired to the wall. By the way, increasing the comfort of telephone switch board operators was what motivated Bell Labs to begin research the Light Emitting Diode (LED) back in 1960’s. Our world today would be less bright without them. 🙁

Nearly all of the industry supported research labs are gone now (Google, and Amazon are notable exceptions). Universities are trying to pick up the slack. Here’s the break down of university support by source:

But you can see that nearly all increases have either been Federal, or internal through increasing tuition or alumni donations going to research. That’s an unsustainable bubble that history has shown is prone to collapse. It also means that over the same 40 year time period, the odds of getting a federal grant funded have decreased significantly and are now approaching 1 in 10, just 10%. These grants are being written by the most highly educated, rigorously evaluated, intellectuals on the planet. At roughly 30 pages each, a grant like this can easily take over a month to write. This is likely the biggest waste of human intellectual capital in history. Yet we still have to keep trying.

Some sobering statistics:

  • US consumers spend more on potato chips than the Federal government spends on Energy R&D.
  • US consumers spent $18.4 billion on Easter Candy this year. That’s nearly what the Fed’s spent on Health R&D and more than what was totally allocated for Space, Energy, Transportation, STEM Education, Agriculture, Natural Resource, and “Other” R&D.
  • US industrial firms spend over twice as much on litigation (lawsuits) as on research.
  • The biannual US Cryogenics conference I help organize will have more papers and speakers from China attending this year than from the US.

How does this relate to the March and Earth Day today? More statistics:

“The Department of Defense sees climate change as a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk. We are already observing the impacts of climate change in shocks and stressors to vulnerable nations and communities, including in the United States, and in the Arctic, Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America. Case studies have demonstrated measurable impacts on areas vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and in specific cases significant interaction between conflict dynamics and sensitivity to climate changes. Although climate-related stress will disproportionately affect fragile and conflict-affected states, even resilient, well-developed countries are subject to the effects of climate change in significant and consequential ways.”

It’s too depressing to keep going, yet too scary to ignore. We currently enjoy the best standard of living in human history because of Science and Technology. But our neglect of this very Science and Technology threatens to derail this progress for humanity’s future. For humanity to have a future, we need to commit to Science and Technology to enable sustainable harmony with the Earth.

That’s my mission as an educator, scientist, and engineer. That’s why I’m marching today for Earth day. I hope you’ll join me.