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A fire that needs stoking

| Sunday, Jan. 2, 2011

WASHINGTON

New Republican legislators should come down Capitol Hill to the National Museum of American History, which displays a device that in 1849 was granted U.S. patent 6469. It enabled a boat's "draught of water to be readily lessened" so it could "pass over bars, or through shallow water."

The patentee was from Sangamon County, Ill. Across Constitution Avenue, over the Commerce Department's north entrance, are some words of the patentee, Abraham Lincoln:

THE PATENT SYSTEM ADDED

THE FUEL OF INTEREST

TO THE FIRE OF GENIUS

Stoking that fire is, more than ever, a proper federal function, so the legislators should be given some reading matter. One is William Rosen's book "The Most Powerful Idea in the World," a study of the culture of invention. Another is the National Academy of Sciences report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited," an addendum to a 2005 report on declining support for science and engineering research.

Such research is what canals and roads once were -- a prerequisite for long-term economic vitality. The first Republican president revered Henry Clay, whose "American System" stressed spending on such "internal improvements." Today, the prerequisites for economic dynamism are ideas.

Says Deborah Wince-Smith of the Council on Competitiveness: "Talent will be the oil of the 21st century." And the talent that matters most is the cream of the elite. Said the late Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod: "Ninety-nine percent of the discoveries are made by 1 percent of the scientists."

With populism rampant, this is not a propitious moment to defend elites, even scientific ones. Nevertheless, the nation depends on nourishing them and the institutions that sustain them.

U.S. undergraduate institutions award 16 percent of their degrees in the natural sciences or engineering; South Korea and China award 38 percent and 47 percent, respectively. America ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.

America has been consuming its seed corn:

• From 1970 to 1995, federal support for research in the physical sciences, as a fraction of GDP, declined 54 percent; in engineering, 51 percent.

• On a per-student basis, state support of public universities has declined for more than two decades and was at the lowest level in a quarter-century before the current economic unpleasantness.

• Annual federal spending on mathematics, the physical sciences and engineering now equals only the increase in health care costs every nine weeks.

Republicans are determined to be economizers. They must, however, make distinctions. Congressional conservatives can demonstrate that skill by defending research spending that sustains collaboration among complex institutions -- corporations' research entities and research universities. Research, including in the biological sciences, that yields epoch-making advances requires time horizons that often are impossible for businesses, with their inescapable attention to quarterly results.

An iconic conservative understood this. Margaret Thatcher, who studied chemistry as an Oxford undergraduate, said:

"Although basic science can have colossal economic rewards, they are totally unpredictable. And therefore the rewards cannot be judged by immediate results. Nevertheless, the value of (Michael) Faraday's work today must be higher than the capitalization of all shares on the stock exchange."

The last Congress' misbegotten stimulus legislation -- an indulgent and incoherent jumble of pent-up political appetites -- may have done large and lasting damage by provoking a comparably indiscriminate reaction against federal spending.

This will be doubly dangerous if a curdled populism, eager to humble elites, targets a sphere of American supremacy and a basis of its revival -- its premier research universities.

"Gathering Storm" says that because of the recent recession, many universities -- during 2008 and 2009, endowments of public and private institutions declined an average of 18.7 percent -- "are in greater jeopardy than at any time in nearly a century."

Granted, political correctness and academic obscurantism in some disciplines -- mostly the humanities and social sciences -- of some elite universities have damaged the prestige of the institutions and irritated substantial portions of the public.

But the public should not now be punished by penalizing, with diminished funding, the scientific disciplines that have been mostly innocent of the behaviors that have sometimes made academia a subject of satire.

Richard Levin, economist and Yale's president, asks: Would Japan's growth have lagged since 1990 "if Microsoft, Netscape, Apple and Google had been Japanese companies"?

Japan's failure has been a failure to innovate.

As "Gathering Storm" says: Making the government lean by cutting the most defensible -- because most productive -- federal spending is akin to making an overweight aircraft flight-worthy by removing an engine.

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