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NEXT: The Future of American Global Scientific Leadership

David Staley David Staley NEXT: The Future of American Global Scientific Leadership
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I caught myself before I “got it wrong.”

I have written before that, because futurists think in terms of scenarios and probabilities rather than predictions and certainties, we really do not consider being right or wrong the true metric of our value. Getting the future “right” means only that a scenario we posited—one, perhaps, with a high degree of probability—did in fact come to pass. (See my Pandemic scenario.) But what of those scenarios that don’t happen? These are not incorrect predictions, according to futurists, but scenarios that remained confined to the realm of the possible.  

Back in April, when I was writing about what the world after COVID-19 might look like, I wrote the following words that I intended to include in my column for that month.

Dr. Amy Acton—the director of the Ohio Department of Health—has become a celebrity, as we eagerly await her realistic but comforting words at the Governor’s daily press briefings. Dr. Anthony Fauci has emerged as a trusted voice of scientific expertise. Is their prominence a portend of a re-enchantment with science and expertise? Anti-science attitudes and a distrust of experts will most certainly remain among a portion of the population, but these attitudes may very well retreat back as fringe elements in our political discourse. 

At the last minute, just before I published it, I deleted the above paragraph, and have been saving it in an “ideas” file I keep near my other writings on the future. Why did I decide to delete it?

At the time I wrote it, I thought that the affirmation of expertise was a real possibility, that the COVID-19 crisis was another Sputnik moment for our country that would demonstrate the utility and need for scientific expertise to guide public policy. But as I was ready to publish these words, the discrediting of Dr. Fauci began, and then the unforgivable threats against Dr. Acton were launched. The pleas for wearing masks went unheeded by an unexpectedly large segment of the population. Even as I first wrote the words, the scenario started to look more and more implausible such that publishing it would serve little purpose.  

At one time, American leadership in science was a cornerstone of our global power. That power—established after the Second World War—included American military might, the design and control of the international geopolitical order, and the funding of scientific research, which set the global standard to which others aspired. Our public health infrastructure, to take just one example, was the gold standard.

Not any more.  

In May, The Lancet, the respected medical journal, lamented the decline of the Centers for Disease Control. 

“In the decades following its founding in 1946, the CDC became a national pillar of public health and globally respected,” noted the editors. Now, the CDC, “the flagship agency for the nation’s public health, has seen its role minimized and become an ineffective and nominal adviser in the response to contain the spread of the virus.” 

Much of the world has looked on with a combination of incredulity and horror as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed American exceptionalism and global leadership as a fallacy. 

“This is perhaps the first global crisis in more than a century,” writes Katrin Bennhold in the New York Times, “where no one is even looking to the United States for leadership.”

American scientific leadership—once envied by the world—has suffered such that I wonder if it can be rehabilitated?  

One of President-elect Biden’s many acts of restoring American soft power must surely be to resurrect the authority and global influence of American science. He has already signaled that combatting climate change is among his top priorities, which suggests that climate science and climate scientists will guide his policies. Last March, when it was clear that he would be the Democratic nominee for president, Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs that, among his goals as president, he would prioritize American scientific and technological leadership: 

I will make investment in research and development a cornerstone of my presidency, so that the United States is leading the charge in innovation. There is no reason we should be falling behind China or anyone else when it comes to clean energy, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, 5G, high-speed rail, or the race to end cancer as we know it. We have the greatest research universities in the world. 

Joe Biden in Foreign Affairs

In addition to “listening to the scientists” as he has promised to do, Biden could also take steps such as resuscitating the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and heeding the recommendations of its director.

If there has been a decline in American scientific authority, it is not only the fault of our political leaders. Too many Americans dismiss science, and public trust in scientists appears to signal one more fracture in our nation’s polity. Given such divisions, one wonders if Biden alone is capable of restoring public confidence in science.  

And so, right now, I will publish the paragraph I deleted back in the spring. But rather than a high probability scenario, I think I would have to classify “the resurgence of American global scientific leadership” as a low probability scenario at this moment. But with the potential to become more highly probable. 

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast and president of Columbus Futurists

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