The life science imperative

LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS is a contributing editor to Opinion.

IN THE 20th century, issues of national and international security were transformed by a revolution in solid-state physics that allowed mankind to take flight and split the atom. Advances in physics also led to the development of the transistor, the semiconductor and ultimately to the information technology explosion that transformed economic life.

The 20th century was an American century in no small part because of American leadership in the application of the physical sciences. Although the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were developed in Europe, the practical application of these ideas occurred in the United States. Imagine how different the last half a century would have been if nuclear weapons had first been created elsewhere or if the locus of the information technology revolution had been outside the U.S.

If the 20th century was defined by the physical sciences, the 21st century will be defined by life sciences. Lifespans will rise as cures are found for chronic diseases, and healthcare will come to be a larger share of the economy than manufacturing. Life-science advances will lead to agricultural revolutions, profound changes in energy technology and the development of new materials. The “drugs that help you study” that are pervasive on college campuses are just a precursor of developments that will alter human capacities and human nature in profound ways.


Will the United States lead in the life sciences in this century as it did in the physical sciences in the last? It is an important economic question, and its implications go far beyond to embrace issues of national security and moral leadership. As of now, based on investment levels, research output and the prestige of our research institutions, the U.S. is the world’s life-sciences leader.

But past performance is no guarantee of future success. In the first third of the 20th century, Europe and Europeans were the dominant source of important discoveries in physics. Yet, for various reasons, Europe became less dominant as the U.S. asserted its leadership. If this nation is to maintain its leadership in life sciences in the 21st century, there are important steps that must be taken.

Most abstract but most important, we must respect the scientific method. Yet in sharp distinction to other industrial countries, the U.S. is moving away from science. Polls demonstrate that in the United States, up to a third of high school biology teachers have as much faith in “intelligent design” as evolution. Some surveys suggest that as many as 70% of the American people agree with them. Matters are not helped when the president advocates the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution as a “different school of thought.”

Funding for science has to be a priority. Over the last three years, when more has been possible in the life sciences than ever before -- when we are on the cusp of achieving breakthroughs in everything from stem cells to the treatment of cancer -- government funding for science research has been cut in real terms. This is particularly hard on young researchers. In 1980, 50% of first-time grant recipients from the National Institutes of Health were under 40 years old. Today, that is closer to 20%. In addition, NIH grants are getting harder to come by for all researchers -- in fiscal year 2006, 10% of grant proposals to the NIH were funded, one of the lowest percentages ever.

Funding, however, is more than just a matter of aggregate resources. It is also a matter of compensation levels. In today’s economy, an outstanding graduate of a leading business school earns a substantially higher salary than a potential Nobel Prize winner graduating with a doctorate in biology. Several years after graduation, the differences are even more pronounced. It should not be a surprise that more talented young people are not headed toward careers in basic research in the life sciences.

We also need to control the role of politics in allocating science dollars, which are currently tossed around like so many political footballs. The fact that diseases that afflict the relatives of key congressional appropriators receive a disproportionate share of research dollars is not a step toward scientific progress. And it is not a step toward a healthier 21st century to allow the views of a vocal minority to effectively cut off funding for embryonic stem cell research, research that is likely to lead to new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and cancer within the next generation.


Finally, to establish a durable advantage in the life sciences we need to support clusters of extraordinary performance. Any individual contribution Americans make will always be subject to competition from someone equally able and willing to work for less. But strength that resides in a cluster or a community -- as with Silicon Valley in the realm of information technology or New York in financial services -- is much more difficult to challenge, because any individual, no matter how talented or how willing to work for low pay, is much less productive without a reinforcing community around him.

These are not issues that can be addressed in a year or even a presidential term. Nor will they have a large predictable effect right away. But, over the long run, few issues are as important to a nation’s economic security and global standing as being a leader in moving life sciences forward.