We’re back! The mood at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was buoyant. President Obama speaks science. The crowd for Al Gore’s talk filled not only the main ballroom but also the giant ballroom in another hotel that served as the overflow room. All the sessions devoted to policy and the new administration were packed.
Steven Chu, Jane Lubchenco, and John Holdren were hailed as a new holy trinity. Fresh news of more than $20 billion for science and technology in the stimulus package threatened to cause levitation of the hotel. Was it true that the House-Senate conference resulted in more money for research than either chamber had approved separately? Visions of new laboratories crowded with graduate students danced in the eyes of the crowd.
Although some people might have arrived without a wish list, it is hard to believe that anyone could have survived the meeting without giving in to the temptation to draft at least a short one. Low-cost solar cells, stem cell breakthroughs, a nuclear waste neutralizer, invisible wind turbines, an AIDS vaccine, synthetic carbon-free transportation fuels, ecological research preserves, a generic cholesterol drug, national science education standards, the solution to the innovation valley of death (we’ll call it the bridge to somewhere), the return of space science, even the resurrection of the Office of Technology Assessment.
Of course, there were a few wet blankets who wanted to remind everyone that the science part of the stimulus shared the same challenge as the rest of the package: Finding effective ways to spend a sudden infusion of cash will not be easy. The responsibility should be sobering. After years of bemoaning its powerlessness, the science community must recognize that being listened to and well funded brings with it the pressure to deliver. The shrugging, head-shaking excuse that we could have done so much with a little more money and a little more respect is no longer there. It’s put-up or shut-up time.
It’s also time to time for the community to expand its vision beyond its own self-interest. For the next few years, no one is going to listen to whining about poor neglected scientists. In contrast with disastrous unemployment levels, a deepening housing crisis, and a paralyzed financial system, science is sitting pretty. This is not the time to fret about science itself. This is the moment to listen to what others expect from science, to understand their priorities, to think about what science can deliver to help the nation.
Some, afflicted with chronic myopia or advanced chutzpah, will claim that the science community has always done that. Be serious. There is good reason to celebrate the new administration’s refreshing attitude toward science and the funding bonanza. But when we come down from our Obama high, we should remember what the nation wants from science and why this money fell into our laps. Our mission is not just to advance our research, it is to think hard and work diligently to serve the nation; to be more expansive and more accountable in confronting the most damaging economic crisis of our lifetimes.