You’re a scientist? Uncle Sam wants you.

And well he should.

Here’s the background.

The greatest generation was born into an era of rapid IT innovation that gave us the telephone and radio (and hinted at television). They then endured the Great Depression, a decade of hardscrabble economic times facing farmers and industrial workers alike. They earned their spurs thwarting the ambitions of despotic leaders in Germany, Italy, Japan (and ultimately, the Soviet Union) seeking to dominate a debilitated world.

The greatest generation accomplished this in great part through months and even years of unselfish military service. The true heroes were those sacrificed their lives on the front lines.

That 20th-century narrative finds a mirror in present events. Today, covid-19 confronts our generation with three daunting challenges we have to overcome simultaneously[1]:  (1) economic – wresting food, energy, and water from the earth while at the same time revitalizing global commerce; (2) maintaining and improving public health and safety in the face of natural hazards; and (3) slowing the pace of environmental degradation, habitat loss, and biodiversity[2].

This time around the heroes are the world’s healthcare workers in the hospital ICU’s and ER’s. For weeks they have done their best to save lives in the face of shortages in beds, basic medicines, as well as medical gear ranging from ventilators to protective garments, face masks, etc. Their days have seen too much death and tragedy up close; their evenings have been consumed by the additional measures needed to spare their own families and loved ones any secondhand exposure to the virus. Add to them the larger group who have taken on extra risk in order to keep the food chain going from the farm or ranch all the way to the work-from–home crowd, as well as maintain the functioning of other infrastructure critical to the survival of today’s modernized, urban, interconnected world.

Rosie the riveter

Armies fought World War II, but industrial might played a large role in the outcome. American industry, protected from the worst of the conflict by two major oceans, was pivotal. And so was America’s enlistment of women  in the war effort (The conflict favored nations that embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion even more broadly – though not by today’s label.)

Which brings us to science and scientists.

In World War II, science and technology made a huge difference. First it was radar – pivotal in the Battle of Britain. Then the bomb – which hastened the surrender of Japan. Penicillin and anti-malarials (the latter especially in the Pacific theater) also played their part.

Expect science and technology to be even more pivotal in greatest generation – the sequel. Here’s why. 

Leaders and analysts are beginning to assess the long-term consequences of the trillions of dollars being spent now to keep nations and peoples worldwide on life support. Eye-watering levels of global debt will need to be repaid. Governments face hard choices: raise taxes; default on debts, either explicitly, or (more likely) through inflation; or grow their economies. In reality, governments will resort to various combinations of all three.

When it comes to the needed economic growth, innovation is the key. Tomorrow’s real world problems cannot be tackled successfully with yesterday’s tools. Even prior to covid-19, Americans had been spending nearly 20% of GDP on healthcare, essentially the costliest worldwide. The pandemic has only increased everyone’s desire for personal safety in the face of health threats. Expect therefore that much government investment and private-sector attention will initially focus on advance and application of IT (exascale computing, big data, data analytics, artificial intelligence) to healthcare and public health. Expect as well a rebalancing in emphasis. In recent years, innovation in infectious disease had taken a back seat to research on chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. Look now for increased attention and investment in disease surveillance and early detection, testing, vaccines, and more. 

STEM education in both K-12 public schools and in research universities needs innovation across the board. In the lingering aftermath of World War II (the so-called Cold War) Russian launch of Sputnik served as a wake-up call: American youth needed more rigorous science education. The result was the National Defense Education Act. Something similar is required today. But the NDEA fell short in a major respect. It strengthened U.S. science, but made a difference only for a relatively small fraction of the population. The outcome was a US culture in which science could become the province of a few “nerdy kids” (full disclosure: I was one) instead of something more universal.

(A digression. In recent years, the German educational system has been held in high regard globally. The reason?  It has trained and prepared virtually all young Germans to enter careers in high-tech, manufacturing jobs. This has made Germany a rich exporter, able to maintain high wages in the face of stiff competition from China and others with much lower labor costs. This time around, U.S. STEM education needs to do the same. The US, with only 4% of the world’s population, cannot hold on to world leadership unless it is also the most innovative. Virtually every U.S. economic sector, every field of endeavor, every government institution and every corporation is constrained by the shortage of professionals facile with today’s IT. The U.S. also needs to be the most inclusive; diversity, equity and inclusion have never mattered more.)

Closer to home: what are the implications of all this for Earth scientists? It’s important that in the emphasis on IT and its application to public health the Earth sciences shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle. 

But to argue this now is to walk a fine line. 

The case needs to be made. Natural scientists – who study the Earth system, its physical, chemical, biological, ecological, and human and social components, who apply emerging technologies to these fields, and who provide products and services based on these sciences and technologies – have never been more needed. The world will be making massive investments – in food, water and energy infrastructure; in building community-level resilience to hazards; in protecting the environment – over coming decades. The insights our environmental intelligence provides can help ensure those investments are made productively and wisely, not squandered. Success requires rapid scientific advance; we don’t have all the science we need. Here tomorrow’s needed tools include:observing instruments of great diagnostic power; models and data analytics realizing the full capabilities of exascale computing powerpredictions comprehending the fully-coupled environmental/human system.

But in the current political climate it’s easy for such calls to seem shrill, or jealous, or self-absorbed. We need to balance our requests for more attention and funding with the strongest possible support for STEM education, for advance in IT and its applications more broadly. Otherwise, we risk looking (and actually being) self-serving in the face of bigger, more immediate world concerns.

What, then, to do? More in the next post.


[1]A recurrent theme of LOTRW – both the blog and book.

[2]And those despots? Newly ascendant, finding opportunity and seizing extraordinary powers while the world is preoccupied with the virus. The current issue of The Economist lists leaders from Turkey, South Africa, Uganda, and Singapore, among others.

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