No science, no sustainability.

On August 26, 1999 – almost two decades ago – Allan Bromley, science advisor to George H.W. Bush from 1989-1993, contributed an op-ed to the Washington Post, entitled No Science, no Surplus.

His basic point? That America’s healthy finances and position in the world at that time owed less to any fiscal chops than to past investments in science. A powerful insight!

And yet it grossly understated the existential importance of advancing science and technology (and their application for societal benefit). Master innovation, make it a way of life – and humankind can prosper indefinitely. To be content with the status quo – to lapse into complacency – is to invite social collapse. The choice is that stark.


To see this, let’s start by digging a little deeper. Mr. Bromley began his op-ed this way:

America is on a roll. We’re balancing the federal budget, reforming welfare and making retirement secure. Sound like a breakthrough in fiscal management? Not exactly. Our awesome economic success can be traced directly to our past investments in science. The problem is, this year’s federal budget for science is a disaster, and it compromises our nation’s economic and social progress.

Here are the latest budget numbers: NASA science is slashed by $678 million; science at the Department of Energy is cut by $116 million; and the National Science Foundation ends up with $275 million less than the president requested. Clearly, Congress has lost sight of the critical role science plays in America.

Federal investments in science pay off — they produce cutting-edge ideas and a highly skilled work force. The ideas and personnel then feed into high-tech industries to drive the U.S. economy. It’s a straightforward relationship: Industry is attentive to immediate market pressures; the federal government makes the venturous investments in university-based research that ensures long-term competitiveness. So far, it’s been a powerful tandem…

He closed as follows:

…Americans hold more than $5 trillion in communications and technology stocks. Our mutual funds, our 401K plans and IRAs are stuffed full of high-tech investments. The retirement security of Americans now depends upon the steady flow of innovations from technology companies. In turn, those companies rely on the steady flow of discoveries and trained work force generated by the scientific community. No science, no savings.

Scientific research at our universities and national labs is now a foundation of the economy and thereby vital to the success of social legislation. But rather than reinforcing the foundation, Congress is eroding it. That action couldn’t come at a worse time.

America’s science infrastructure is in decay — aged science buildings on our campuses, dated laboratory equipment, antiquated computers. During the Bush administration, the Office of Science and Technology Policy estimated the cost of rebuilding our science infrastructure at $100 billion. The Clinton administration has done little to address the problem. The budget Congress is proposing guarantees continued decay…

His 1999 bottom line?

For the sake of the country, I hope Congress will recognize the significant role science plays in society. Without science, there won’t be a surplus.

Spot, on, insofar as it goes. Mr. Bromley continued to speak and write in this veinfor the rest of his life. His ideas influenced others. In 2012, during the Obama-Romney presidential campaign, Neal Lane, former science advisor to President Clinton, in a New York Timesop-ed, doubled down:

Mitt Romney said in all three presidential debates that we need to expand the economy. But he left out a critical ingredient: investments in science and technology.

Scientific knowledge and new technologies are the building blocks for long-term economic growth…

So it is astonishing that Mr. Romney talks about economic growth while planning deep cuts in investment in science, technology and education. They are among the discretionary items for which spending could be cut 22 percent or more under the Republican budget plan, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the plan, which Mr. Romney has endorsed, could cut overall nondefense science, engineering, biomedical and technology research by a quarter over the next decade, and energy research by two-thirds.

Mr. Romney seems to have lost sight of the critical role of research investments not only in developing new medicines and cleaner energy sources but also in creating higher-skilled jobs…[the full text inserts supporting detail here]

…If our country is to remain strong and prosperous and a land of rewarding jobs, we need to understand this basic investment principle in America’s future: no science, no growth.

Mr. Bromley argued science and technology investments made possible a balanced federal budget, even a surplus. Mr. Lane asserted that innovation was essential not just to federal budget health, but national economic growth.

This viewpoint continues to be widely held. In a comment on the previous LOTRW post, Rick Spinrad, former NOAA Chief Scientist, reminded me that he and other chief scientists from five major federal agencies made a similar point back in 2015:

While the pioneering spirit has not changed and the pace of technological revolutions remains strong, there are three areas where America must make headway in order to keep our rightful place as leader in science and technology:

First, we need more American pioneers to develop the innovative technologies needed to build more resilient, sustainable communities, protect human health and make progress in improving quality of life. We can do this through continued support of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, which is the catalyst for spurring and maintaining a highly-skilled American workforce.

Second, we need a renewed commitment for critical investments which provide the funding and resources our scientists in basic and applied research fields need to do their jobs. And in following these tenets, we need to fund projects that our well-trained scientists believe will lead to major breakthroughs.

And now more than ever, we need more policy champions to keep the trust in his vision and help promote the basic research our agencies, our research partners and our commercial industries need to keep the U.S. on the leading edge.

As chief scientists of U.S. federal science and service agencies, we are committed to keeping the U.S. at the forefront of science and technological innovation as the frontier of opportunities continues to expand


The societal stakes are higher than these perspectives suggest. Fact is, there is no steady-state means by which seven-going-on-nine-billion people can continue indefinitely to meet basic needs for food, water, and energy; maintain resilience to natural hazards; and protect habitats, ecosystems, and the services they provide. We can never achieve these goals so much as through continuous innovation buy time[1].

The current rapid advance of science and technology is good news. Indications are that in principle, not only can we buy time, we can buy lots of it. The tricky bit is that innovation is about more than R&D – it’s about societal uptake. And this latter step requires consistently supportive public policies, providing: sustained investment, at meaningful levels; strong public education; robust democratic institutions; and trust – nothing less than a culture of innovation– prevailing country by country, and indeed on global scales.

This has implications for the social contract between scientists and society. More soon.


[1]The argument is laid out more fully in Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Can Save the Planet(American Meteorological Society press, 2014)

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One Response to No science, no sustainability.

  1. Bill:-

    While I couldn’t agree more on the need for continued governmental investments in science and technology, we have to recognize that these investments won’t be made in a vacuum. The backdrop of the increasing costs of entitlements (esp. if we try to do Medicare for all – estimated cost of $32 trillion!); continuing spending for national security; upgrading the parlous state of our infrastructure – all mean that we have to make a compelling case to our elected leaders (mostly lawyers). For many of these politicians, that doesn’t mean a case based on the national good but rather a case based on what will get them reelected. That means not one story but many. Daunting, but doable.

    However, if we think outside the box, there may be a better way. Almost unrecognized in the recent tax bill is a provision targeted at the >$6T of capital sitting in private hands. The bill provides favorable tax treatment to incentivize investment in Opportunity Zones – lower income areas with little private (and not enough public) investment. Why not provide incentives to mobilize the private capital sitting on the sidelines to invest in science and technology? Only one case to make that doesn’t cost the politicians anything and that doesn’t have to compete against all of the other priority items. An idea worth pursuing?

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