Science in the Public Service and Private Enterprise


As the nation shifts gears in the transition to a new administration it’s unfortunate how little science and advanced technology enter the public debate and discussion. With the exception of climate change, science seems almost forgotten. And yet our still-preeminent science and technology complex is as much a national resource as oil and gas and far more fundamental. As we’ve noted many times in this publication, our preeminence in S&T is in fact by no means guaranteed in the future.

I was amazed recently when I learned that not a single Russian university is currently ranked in the top 100 in the world. As a young scientist I was always eager to communicate and collaborate with Russians. Loss of this foundation is reflected in the weakness of Russia in competitive innovation.

So two key questions face the nation: will we recognize the need to maintain a vibrant scientific underpinning for the economy? Will we find a way to use scientific thinking in our public planning? I can’t help but remember Vannevar Bush (author of Science the Endless Frontier) who right after World War II constructed a coherent national plan for scientific research that meshed well with the economy and private enterprise. Perhaps there were fewer ideological hang-ups then but I still believe that a coherent plan is possible today. We have many success stories to help guide and encourage us.

We are currently close to energy independence and this is largely due to new oil and gas extraction methods. This is a classical success story of George Mitchell, a tech-savvy American entrepreneur  supported in part by public research funds and using some techniques developed at our national labs. In an era where very little basic research is performed in industry our national labs. and research universities provide this vital foundation. The Department. of Energy is a good example of this foundation and its outgoing secretary, Ernest Moniz, has been a steadfast advocate of linking public research with private enterprise. For example, there is no more serious issue facing our nation than the highly coupled problems of clean energy production and water management .Under Moniz’s leadership DOE has undertaken a major analysis titled, The Energy Water Nexus, which not only defines the daunting problems but outlines solutions that include public-private partnerships. An important theme emerges from this and many similar projects: attack large-scale, complex problems by combining the power of creative private entrepreneurship and world-leading publically supported R&D often but not exclusively in cooperative public-private ventures.

Moniz provided the kind of leadership the nation so vitally needs—solid, highly respected scientific and management credentials combined with an appreciation of the power of private enterprise especially when driven by world-leading S&T. In other words, an excellent model for the concept of public service. It will be quite intriguing to follow the transition from Moniz to the new Secretary, Rick Perry. In all honesty, Perry has surprised me by indicating a new and somewhat perceptive awareness of the rich treasure that DOE and other federal science assets provide for the American economy. Will this result in prudent planning? Let’s hope for the best because the challenges are enormous.

There is little doubt that science and yechnology are driving an increasing acceleration of economic and societal changes in our world—often dwarfing issues like trade imbalance. This picture is nicely (if somewhat stridently) summarized by Thomas Friedman in his new book, Thank You for Being Late. He emphasizes the daunting impact of this accelerated world on human development and social stability. The Brookings Institution recently published a report on the declining labor force participation rate in the United States. The dominant factor is the inability of our workers to keep pace (in knowledge and training) with the light speed pace of S&T-driven change in the workplace. As I’ve mentioned before, we have some clear examples in the world of nations (e.g. Germany) that are dealing effectively with the challenge of keeping the workforce abreast of the latest S&T.

Making sure that both our entrepreneurs and our workers have the latest digital tools in their hands in a national imperative. Dealing with huge challenges like these will require us to marshal all of our resources in a cooperative effort that is not hobbled by rigid thinking. This is centered on the idea of tangible, provable results trumping rigid ideology, which is one way of describing “scientific thinking” in the service of both public planning and private enterprise.

Allan Hauer, a physicist now retired, was chief scientist of the stockpile stewardship office, National Nuclear Security Administration and a manager at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.