President Trump in his inaugural address assured us that the guiding principle of the new administration would be “America First.”
“America will start winning again, winning like never before,” he promised. Many of us found his tone unsettling, but at least if someone’s going to be first, it may as well be us.
One critical area where the United States has been first for a long time has been the realm of science. From telephony to powered flight to television to nuclear energy to polio vaccination to space exploration to the “Green Revolution” to the internet, the US was either number one or extremely close to it. Our devotion to pushing the frontiers of knowledge paid handsome dividends both for our national security and our economic well-being.
But as of now, we’re no longer first. We’re second. Any way you look at it, China has passed us by. Two years ago, they passed us in the number of serious scientific papers published each year. That’s not too shocking, given that their population is so much larger. But this year China will surpass the United States in total spending on scientific research, despite the fact that our national wealth is more than triple theirs.
Who has the only solar-powered highway for recharging electric cars? China. Who has the world’s first and only quantum satellite? China. Who has the first human CRISPR trials? China. China has 202 of the 500 most powerful supercomputers on earth; the US has 143. China now has the world’s largest radio telescope, after we let Hawaiian religious fanatics derail our plans to build it. Eric Schmidt, the former Google executive who now chairs the Defense Innovation Board, predicts that China will surpass us in artificial intelligence (AI) capability by 2025. That will create an extraordinary threat to our security, given that most military experts believe the future belongs to the force with the best algorithms.
Meanwhile, the White House has let the job of science advisor remain unfilled for over a year. Appointing an advisor isn’t a magic bullet to fix the problem, but leaving the position vacant exemplifies the disdain for science that fumbled away our lead in the first place.
Does it matter who’s number one in science, beyond feel-good flag-waving? In many ways it does, even beyond the impacts on our economy and our security. The leader in a given technology sets a tone for the rest of the world. The freewheeling internet, for example, might not have looked the same had it come from China rather than from the US. In fact, China has been methodically censoring the internet from day one, to bolster what President Xi Jinping calls “social stability.” (Translation: “I get to stay in power.”) China’s rapid AI advance is being used, in part, to replace human censors with more reliable AI censors.
Much of China’s computing power is being used to support its surveillance state. The combination of facial recognition, a mandatory universal DNA database, and “predictive policing” has already reached jaw-dropping levels in the western province of Xinjiang. Now they’re developing a “social credit score” for every individual in the country, based in part on evaluations from one’s neighbors—and forget about living a normal life if your score drops too low. Facial recognition is even being used to prevent people from taking too much toilet paper.
A Beijing sperm bank seeks donations only from men with a “good political mindset” and “a love for socialism and the motherland,” who must also be “supportive of the leadership of the Party” and loyal to its work. Primate researchers are being lured from the US to China (where, by the way, scientists produced the first monkey clone last year) because they don’t have the same stringent animal ethics rules. Ethical concerns have also slowed experimentation with CRISPR gene editing in the US, but not in China, where it’s full steam ahead. Are you worried about the unconsidered side effects of unleashing gene-edited organisms into the environment? In the US, we make at least a modicum of effort to look before we leap, and we have a cautious citizenry that pressures business to act responsibly. In China all bets are off, and eager beaver gene experimenters do whatever they want. Citizens won’t complain for fear of damaging their social credit score. In the US, we take antibiotic resistance seriously, and are genuinely trying to limit antibiotic use to retard the development of bulletproof germs by natural selection. In China, by contrast, they’re taking one of the most powerful antibiotics, colistin, that we reserve for use as a last resort when nothing else works, and dumping it on their agricultural fields by the thousands of tons.
Don’t think, though, that Trump’s America has no strategy for dealing with this. Here’s the plan: instead of spending more money on science, we’re spending more money on religion. Since last year’s catastrophic Trinity Lutheran case, churches have been beating down the treasury doors to suck out more and more taxpayer dollars to prop themselves up. Direct federal grants for the repair of churches are already here, and it seems certain that the Supreme Court will overturn state laws like the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that prevent state funds from being used for this purpose. Government is now providing medical care for retired clergy and paying for religious art inside churches. Betsy DeVos is busily trying to divert billions of dollars from public schools to religious schools, in the face of evidence that shows they produce students with much weaker math skills. Who needs math and science when you’ve bribed God to be on your side?
We can’t stop the Chinese from spending on science, and we can’t stop its totalitarian government from doing bad things with what they learn. We can, though, make an effort to climb back to the top of the heap ourselves. For all the United States’ many faults, the net result of our century-plus of scientific leadership has been overwhelmingly positive. For now, since we can’t fairly say “America first” anymore, I have a great idea for a replacement slogan: “Make America Smart Again.”