When I was growing up in Damascus, the notion that a little Syrian girl could become a scientist seemed like an impossible dream. Then I read the story of Marie Curie and her move from Poland to France to study physics, and I became obsessed with the thought of some day going to Paris to study science. One evening, my parents were indulgently telling a family friend about my wild ambitions when he turned to me and said: “If you want to dream big, dream about going to America. That’s where great science happens these days.”
Just like that, America became my promised land. I gathered evidence of its amazing scientific and technical prowess. I watched with rapture as it launched the space program while I fervently hoped that I too could become part of its great scientific adventure. Yet today, I wonder if I would give the same advice to a little girl from Damascus with that same dream.
I’m worried about the possibility that in science and technology, we in America might be losing our mojo. I see signs of it everywhere, both in what is happening elsewhere and what is not happening in the U.S. But of all the bad omens, the one I find most distressing is how strenuously we have to argue for the value of science and technology - for discovering the truth about our world and using that knowledge toward a better life.
Nowadays, if we want politicians to be remotely willing to listen, we need to sell the value of science using only pragmatic arguments - the potential for job creation, the need for better medical cures, our standing as world leaders. I understand the import and truth of these arguments. I live in Michigan, and I only have to look around me to realize that the economy has been in terrible shape and that job creation is essential. I work on brain-related disorders, and I am reminded daily that their tragic burden on humanity is nothing short of staggering. Any approach that can potentially alleviate human suffering, be it physical or mental, and simultaneously help our economy ranks as one of the best ideas to consider for addressing our woes.
But there is a more fundamental reason, I believe, to support science in this country and to keep on doing so even during tough times. A reason that the world seems to recognize but we in America seem to be forgetting: Discovery is at the heart of what America is. It represents an attitude that rings American - a fundamental belief that when you seek, you discover, and when you discover, you transform. In this culture, unlike older cultures, truth is not fully defined by what is handed down. Truth is sought, and new knowledge is prized but held with the expectation that a greater depth of understanding is always around the corner. In America, more than in any other place I know, it is not only possible, but it seems essential, to know more and do better.
The reason this attitude appears magical in its power to inspire and transform is because it happens to be the best way to improve the lot of humankind. We can wish with all our hearts to cure Alzheimer’s disease, depression, AIDS, diabetes or cancer. But we scientists are simply not smart enough to do this in a systematized manner - to set our collective minds to it and figure out the perfect linear strategy for getting there. We have to explore, get lost, beat our heads against the wall, be proved wrong, and, suddenly, miraculously through this meandering mess, something new and unexpected emerges - something that helps in ways that we never could have imagined.
Of course, we need to have a prepared mind in order to recognize the potential, and we need to set priorities and organize implementation strategies and execute them with thoughtful effectiveness. But this is all downstream from that unplanned bit of magic, that uncharted discovery - the setting out to find a better route to the Indies and discovering America.
Who cares, you might ask, when the deficit is so huge it is beyond our comprehension? Who cares about science and technology when Congress is grappling with real, everyday life - taxes and jobs and the next election? Can’t we set research aside and return to it when we can afford it? These are precisely the kinds of questions that trigger the scientific community’s well-reasoned responses about the need for better cures, for job creation, for maintaining America’s leadership position. But my answer is much simpler: In trying to solve our everyday problems, can we afford to lose the essence of who we are? Should we not fight to remain that incomparable nation, the one that always has believed in the limitless power of seeking the truth and living by it?
Huda Akil is a professor of neurosciences at the University of Michigan and a past president of the Society for Neuroscience.
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