With the latest innovations in AI and machine learning the chatter of campus, it is easy for Stanford students to conflate Silicon Valley entrepreneurship with US scientific leadership. After all, with self-driving cars and automated grocery stores, it seems ludicrous to argue that our nation is experiencing an innovation deficit — the very opposite instead seems to be true.
If only this were so. In what a recent MIT report labels as a “growing US innovation deficit,” declining federal funding for basic research (research without direct commercial application) has jeopardized American leadership in fields as diverse as cybersecurity, fusion energy, battery technology, and Alzheimer’s research. According to the report, nearly half of respondents in a recent survey revealed that economic pressures forced them to abandon investigations they thought “central to their lab’s mission.” President Trump has repeatedly threatened to cut federal funding for scientific research.
Policy reform is crucial to changing this troubling national trend. However, we must also be vigilant in changing our campus culture to encourage more students to study the pure and physical sciences.
Though both students and the administration are vigilant in fighting Stanford’s pre-professional culture by promoting the humanities, very little has been said of the dearth of non-applied science majors on campus. However, similar stereotypes remain: that subjects such as math and chemistry are not only too difficult, but also that they provide few of the necessary “skills” needed for success in the workplace. After all, why spent your time toiling away studying Lebesgue integration or quantum field theory if you can land a prestigious software engineering internship majoring in Symbolic Systems?
However, such non-applied science majors are more important than ever. The basic research generated by disciplines such as chemistry and biology generate the foundations for future applied innovations. Such commercial innovation is difficult to predict, but history proves that the investment is more than worth it. Transformative inventions such as the velcro and the GPS were never developed intentionally, but rather from basic research in outer space. A 2008 study estimated a 39% rate of return arising from publicly funded cardiovascular biomedical and health research. As the global population grows from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2040, innovations in plant science will be necessary to meet global food requirements. However, US investment in basic plant-related R&D is far below that of other disciplines. Commercial incentives are lacking for increased research into new types of antibiotics to tackle the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and federal funding for the physical sciences has been cut in half since the 1970s.
Many argue that such federal stagnation is sufficiently supplanted by rapid increases in private funding for science. Silicon Valley bigshots like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt, for example, have each donated billions of dollars towards initiatives supporting global health and ocean conservation. However, even philanthropic donors avoid basic research in favor of what’s trendy, and more often than not, they tend to benefit elite universities at the expense of poorer ones. Moreover, even if philanthropic science can lead to important breakthroughs, a far greater risk lies in the fact that it undermines the very social contract that cultivates science for the common good.
Change at the policy level is undoubtedly overdue. The national laboratories that once developed the computer and radar in the 1940s and won us World War II must regain the funding and freedom necessary to once again attract top scientists and develop creative solutions to pressing national issues. Similarly, the Trump administration should increase funding for the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health, broadening their mandate to pursue all forms of basic research and proliferating the amount of grants available for scientists.
Yet increased support for basic research also demands a change in our campus culture. The problems that basic research tackles cannot be solved by another permutation of CS + Social Good. Though the added market value of pursuing a School of Engineering degree will always encourage students to major in fields like Computer Science or Mechanical Engineering, Stanford should provide more institutional support for the pure sciences and math while also more aggressively marketing their value and utility. In decrying Stanford’s pre-professional culture, we often focus on the dearth of English and History majors. But if anything, we must promote a culture where the STEM disciplines are cultivated in the same manner that the humanities are, promoting learning for the sake of doing so.
Such a climate will produce more more scholars studying the fundamentals to produce the groundbreaking innovation we see at the tip of the iceberg. After all, while our research programs and graduate students are amongst the strongest in the country across most disciplines, Stanford undergrads lag well behind those from our peer institutions in conducting world-class research. Stanford undergraduates have won just 2 Nobel Prizes — which are generally awarded for breakthroughs in basic research — compared to 21 from Harvard and 16 from Columbia.
It is our prerogative to buck this trend. We must affirm the value of disciplines like physics, chemistry, biology, and math — as well as pure research within the School of Engineering — and recognize that, far more than being a niche intellectual pursuit, training future academic leaders is vital to our continued economic and national prosperity.