The 20th century was shaped by developments in the physical sciences. Issues of national and international security were transformed by the revolution in solid state physics that allowed mankind to take flight and split the atom. Advances in our understanding of physics also led to the development of the transistor, the semiconductor and ultimately to the information technology explosion that transformed economic life.

The 20th century was an American century in no small part because of American leadership in the application of the physical sciences. While the foundational ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics were developed in Europe, the practical application of these ideas occurred in the US.

If the 20th century was defined by developments in the physical sciences, the 21st century will be defined by developments in the life sciences. Lifespans will rise sharply as cures are found for chronic diseases and healthcare will come to be a larger share of the economy than manufacturing. Life science approaches will lead to everything from further agricultural revolutions to profound changes in energy technology and the development of new materials. The “drugs that help you study” that are now pervasive on college campuses are just a precursor of developments that will make it possible to alter human capacities and human nature in profound ways.

It is natural to ask whether the US will lead in the life sciences in this century as it did in the physical sciences in the last. It is a profoundly important economic question, but one whose implications go far beyond to embrace issues of national security and moral leadership. At present, if one looks at levels of investment or at research output or at the prestige of leading institutions, the US is clearly leading in the life sciences. But past performance is no guarantee of future success. In the first third of the 20th century, Europe and Europeans were the dominant source of discoveries in physics. Yet, for various reasons, Europe became less dominant as America asserted its leadership. If America is to maintain its leadership in life sciences in the 21st century, important steps must be taken.

Most abstract but most important, there needs to be respect for the scientific method and its results. In sharp distinction to the situation in other industrial countries, there is an increasing move away from respecting the scientific method in US schools. Polls demonstrate that up to one-third of high school biology teachers have as much faith in intelligent design as in evolution. Some surveys suggest that as many as 70 per cent of the American people agree with them. Matters are not helped when the president advocates the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution as a “different school of thought”.

Second, funding has to be a priority. During the past three years, when there has been more possible in the life sciences than there has ever been, when we are on the cusp of achieving important breakthroughs in everything from stem cells to the treatment of cancer, government funding for science research has been cut in real terms. This has been particularly hard on young researchers starting out in their careers. In 1980, 50 per cent of first-time grant recipients from the National Institutes of Health were under 40 years old. Today, that is closer to 20 per cent. In addition, NIH grants are getting harder to come by. In the fiscal year 2006, only 10 per cent of grant proposals to the NIH were funded, representing one of the lowest percentages ever.

Funding, however, is more than just a matter of aggregate resources. It is also a matter of the compensation levels that are taken as norms in society. In today’s economy an outstanding graduate of a leading business school earns a substantially higher salary than a potential Nobel prize winner graduating with a PhD in biology. Several years after graduation the differences are even more pronounced. It should not be a surprise that in light of this economic reality more of our talented young people are not headed towards careers in basic research in the life sciences.

Third, we need to control the role of politics in allocating science dollars, which are currently tossed around like so many political footballs. The fact that diseases that afflict the relatives of key congressional appropriators receive a disproportionate share of research dollars is not a step towards scientific progress. And it is not a step towards a healthier 21st century to allow the views of a vocal minority in effect to cut off funding for embryonic stem cell research – which is likely to lead to revolutions in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and cancer within the next generation.

Finally, we need to support clusters of extraordinary performance. If competition is individualistic, the US is going to have a very difficult time because salary levels adjusted for talent are going to be much lower in other parts of the world. Rather than focus on each individual as an island unto him or herself, the US needs to focus on fostering clusters of innovation – such as Silicon Valley in information technology, Boston in the life sciences, New York in finance – where each talented individual derives his or her strength from all that is around. Competing with that on price is much more difficult.

These are not issues that can be addressed in a year or even a presidential term. Nor are they issues that will have a large predictable impact over a period of several years. But over the long run, few issues are as important to a nation’s long-term economic security and global standing as being a leader in moving life sciences forward.

The writer is Charles W. Eliot university professor at Harvard

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