Diane Burko, “USA COVID” (2020)

A View from the Boardroom


“We Don’t Know What This Is Yet”

The interview with Charles O. Holliday, “We Don’t Know What This Is Yet” (Issues, Fall 2020), was truly illuminating. I found little, if anything, with which I could disagree. But I do believe there is another lesson to be drawn from the ongoing pandemic, and that would be the importance of scientific research in solving many of the other problems now confounding humanity. If we are to provide clean energy and solve climate change, create jobs, prevent future pandemics, and assure national security, much of the solution will be based on scientific research.

When called upon to find a preventative to a heretofore unknown disease, COVID-19, the science community was able to build upon a large foundation of prior research and produce a vaccine in a fraction of the time normally required, thereby saving untold lives. Yet today, America’s research enterprise is suffering from vast underinvestment, a practice that will leave the nation more vulnerable to future challenges than necessary.

America spends more on potato chips than on clean energy research. It invests only one-tenth of one percent of its gross domestic product on basic biomedical research, while spending 18% of the GDP on health care. The Bloomberg index has dropped the United States from first to eighth place in innovation, and the nation has fallen to 10th place in R&D intensity (R&D as a fraction of GDP). The United States now ranks 29th in the fraction of research that is funded by the federal government.

But it is not only underinvestment in financial capital that is undermining scientific research in America; it is also neglect in the development of human capital. The most widely accepted international indicator of educational achievement, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of 15-year-olds, places the United States 25th among 31 nations in combined math, science, and reading score. The problem in this case is not a lack of investment—the United States spends more per K-12 student than all but one other nation—the problem is how we spend what we spend.

Less than 40% of students entering college in the United States today who plan to study in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) complete a degree in one of those disciplines. The United States now ranks 76th in the fraction of baccalaureate-level degrees that are awarded in engineering, just behind Mozambique.

In contrast with America’s K-12 systems, its universities hold 18 of the top 25 positions in global rankings. Here, the threat is that states have been heavily disinvesting in higher education, while the federal government has begun the pernicious practice of selectively taxing the endowment gains of some of the nation’s most highly regarded research universities. While not yet widespread, this practice discourages future donations to endowments and diverts funds from research and scholarships to taxes.

Meanwhile, China is rapidly gaining on the United States in research investment, all while graduating twice as many students with baccalaureate degrees in science and technology. Given China’s enormous population, the United States cannot hope to match it in overall number of scientists and engineers; we can seek to excel only through extraordinary research and innovation. China understands the importance of scientific research; in the words of Wen Jiabao, former premier of China’s State Council: “The history of modernization is in essence a history of scientific and technological progress. Scientific discovery and technological inventions have brought about new civilizations, modern industries, and the rise and fall of nations.… I firmly believe that science is the ultimate revolution.”

Science was able to rise to the COVID-19 challenge because prior generations put in place the basis to do so. Future generations facing existential problems can also be given that opportunity—if we choose to do so.

Retired Chair and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp.

Former Under Secretary of the US Army

Cite this Article

“A View from the Boardroom.” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 2 (Winter 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Winter 2021