Scientists and other concerned citizens will gather in Washington and hundreds of other cities this weekend to march for science.
From astrophysicists, biologists, chemistry teachers and computer science students to lab technicians, surgeons, oceanographers and nurses, these advocates are united not by party or ideology but by a respect for research and the power of evidence-based decision-making.
The marchers want what all of us want: good health, clean water and fresh air, a strong economy and safe communities.
They recognize that the rigorous pursuit of scientific discovery and the free exchange of research findings lead to smarter decisions and better public policy to reach these goals. And they believe that government support for scientific research is vital to America’s future.
It is the tool we use to understand the natural world. Over the centuries, we have used science to harness natural resources, relieve suffering, prevent illness, create labor-saving devices, and protect ourselves.
Think of the science behind the smartphone in your pocket, the medicine in your cabinet, the appliances in your kitchen, the car in your driveway.
I come to this discussion as president of a research university, and as a neurologist and neuroscientist. I was supported in my research by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I’ve seen what science can do, and what it has done, in helping the United States become the most economically vibrant, affluent and influential nation in the world.
Because of science, we can feed the world with sturdier and more disease-resistant crops. We can rescue stranded travelers using GPS, prepare for catastrophic storms, and build structures that will hold up in an earthquake.
We can communicate instantly and do business with partners around the world. Science lies behind virtually every breakthrough in improving our lives, and it is no exaggeration to say science is the primary driver of the economy in this country.
Support for science should be as American as apple pie. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was endlessly curious about scientific questions, and Thomas Jefferson made contributions to archaeology, paleontology and botany long after his presidency.
We stand today on the achievements of George Washington Carver, Jonas Salk, Dian Fossey, Thomas Edison, Grace Hopper, and latter-day technology titans such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Science and technology have always been a powerful force in advancing our nation — from the steamboat to the telephone to the airplane to the microchip.
Over the past century, the average life expectancy in our country has grown by 30 years, from 50 to 80. This has happened largely because of what science has enabled.
Today, because of science, we have better sanitation, safer and more nutritious food production, cleaner air and water, and profound advances in health care.
These improvements have often started with basic science — with a scientist pursuing research for the sake of gaining new knowledge that might lead to unimagined destinations.
When Alexander Fleming looked at mold growing amid staphylococcus colonies in a petri dish in 1928, he had no idea it would eventually result in the mass production of lifesaving penicillin by American companies during World War II. His discovery ushered in a period of antibiotic discoveries (including streptomycin at Rutgers) that have revolutionized medicine worldwide.
The federal government has developed a strong relationship with science.
To prevent the spread of infectious disease in the 1880s, it created an agency that has grown into the NIH. After World War II, the National Science Foundation was formed “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense.” Today, federal grants help America’s scientists pursue advances in areas such as medicine, manufacturing and energy.
We owe it to the generations to come to keep investing in science. Because of basic science and its applications, we have the food we need, the energy to power our homes, the medical breakthroughs that are extending and improving the quality of life. Because of basic science and research, new businesses and new industries are creating jobs and expanding the economy.
Science matters — and it can help us live healthier, safer and more prosperously. As Congress and the new administration in Washington set priorities for the nation, I urge our leaders to ensure the unfettered sharing of research findings and the strong investment in science that have made America a world leader.
Robert L. Barchi, the president of Rutgers University, is a doctor, research scientist and member of the National Academy of Medicine.