How to Build a Science Superpower

The era of America's unchallenged world dominance as a scientific superpower is coming to an end. Other countries, such as China and India, have been steadily building up science research infrastructures to rival and perhaps even surpass that of the U.S. Both of these nations are advancing their scientific agendas in distinctive ways, and the paths they have taken hold lessons for our own country if we are to hold our ground going forward.

In India, for example, there is a new willingness to spend money on basic science research. The Prime Minister's Science Advisory Council has adopted a multi-pronged strategy that balances the strengthening of existing facilities with the creation of new research centers and institutional structures, many of them modeled on those in the U.S. India recently established a funding agency along the lines of the National Science Foundation, for example, and has set up six elite institutes that will integrate research and undergraduate teaching in the manner of America's great research universities.

India's leadership has also begun forging international partnerships in scientific disciplines it has identified as on the cutting edge, such as bio-sciences and space science. The country is determined to be a player in the game known as Big Science. In my own field of astronomy, India is planning to participate in international scientific collaborations devoted to the detection of gravity waves, ripples in space-time produced by merging black holes and neutron stars; and contributing to the building of a large-aperture telescope that will allow scientists to do probe deeper and farther into the universe than ever before.

During the same period China has adopted an entirely different, but equally effective, set of strategies to advance its standing in the scientific world. It has identified a group of high-impact basic science fields that it plans to lavishly fund in order to nurture native talent and form a world-class scientific community. To rapidly build this human capital, China has adopted the clever tactic of luring its expatriate scientists back home from their posts at Western universities -- providing them with laboratories and funding during their summer breaks, for example.

Astronomy is one of these high-impact areas selected for rapid growth. A year and a half ago, I was invited to a conference in Hangzhou, the capital of the Zhejiang province in Eastern China along with a group of leading Chinese-born astronomers who were working in the U.S. on challenging science questions that require the use of a large-aperture next-generation telescope. China, like India, is considering buying into a collaborative international large telescope project. Since then two teams from the Institute of Optics and Electronics in Chengdu and the Institute for Physics and Chemistry at Beijing have taken the leadership role in developing the laser guide star facility including a new kind of laser for the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope.

Genetics is another field in which China is investing heavily. In order to grow their own talent, the Chinese have set up state-of-the art laboratories and have been enticing top notch Chinese-origin scientists from the U.S. Spurred with the success of collaboration in the International HapMap project that aims to find genes associated with human disease to facilitate treatments, China has decided to push mouse genetics as a new high priority area.

Pouring resources into such multiple streams, repurposing and updating existing facilities as well as delving into new cooperative ventures: these are steps the U.S. needs to emulate. Simply shutting down basic science facilities and de-scoping projects, as we've done at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab recently will end up choking off this country's progress in science. The U.S should be strategically partnering internationally on high energy and space science projects, and also set up ambitious "blue-skies" initiatives to fund individual scientists to engage in no-borders collaborative research on innovative and risky ideas.

The Indian and Chinese strategies, divergent as they are, acknowledge a common reality: We are seeing the rise of a new scientific culture that increasingly rewards international cooperation over competition in basic research. The United States has been slower to recognize and act on these developments. We still hark back to the glory days of the Sputnik era, when an America energized by the Soviet success in space pumped enormous resources into science, all aimed at vanquishing our only rival. We won that contest, of course, but we've been coasting on that victory, and clinging to that model, for far too long. It is becoming very clear that the model of a lone science superpower is now obsolete.

In an era of ever-increasing globalization, what it takes to become and remain a science superpower has fundamentally changed. Research in basic sciences now requires resources that no one country can provide. The pace and demands in any field, be it genetics, nanotechnology or cosmology, can only be met with increased international cooperation and collaborative projects. We must face up to a difficult paradox: The U.S. can maintain a leading position in science only by giving up its desire to be number one.