One symptom on which I base my pessimism about our future is that our nation’s self-vision of greatness appears to me mostly based on reminiscence. Our position in the global scheme as innovators and leaders in the advancement of humanity has been replaced by short term fixation on personal and individual material security. I fear this mindset will doom to failure our 200 year “experiment in democracy”.
I recently came across two videos; one an interview by Bill Moyers with author Isaac Asimov done in 1988. The other video; the testimony of scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson made before Senate Science Committee, March 7, 2012.
In the 1988 video interview with journalist, Bill Moyers, Asimov says:
"The decline in America's world power is, in part, brought about by our diminishing status as a world science leader.”In other words, even back in 1988 Asimov was warning that America’s decline in advancing science and technology was already noticeable. It was apparent, even back then, that we could not rely solely on our reputation in the past as innovators alone, to continue to carry us through to the future.
"Yes, we're still probably up there technologically... but what margins we do have are slimmer, narrower, and we're being overtaken."
"The most damaging statement the United States has ever been subjected to is the phrase 'Yankee Know-How". You get the feeling, somehow, that Americans, just by the fact they're Americans, are somehow more smarter and more ingenious than other people.
"… there is this feeling that somehow because we have a... decent economic system, freedom, free enterprise, which I am all in favor of, that alone will do it for us, and I admit that helps us out in some ways, [but] not if we're lazy about it. It’s not going to do it for us if we don't DO anything.”
This year Neil deGrasse Tyson published his new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, in which he continues the point made by Asimov: that the engines that drive American innovation, and more importantly, stimulate and grow our ECONOMY, are founded in our ability to envision the future. Tyson points directly to the decline of the Space Program and diversion of funding from NASA and other scientific research.
In his testimony before the Senate committee, Tyson said:
“If all you do is coast, you slow down until others eventually catch up and pass you by. We have symptoms in society today; we’re going broke, we’re mired in debt, we don’t have as many scientists we want or need, and jobs are going overseas. I assert that these are not isolated problems; that they’re the collective consequence of the absence of ambition that consumes you when you stop having dreams."Tyson was trying to promote the idea that increased funding for NASA has proven far greater benefits by driving a culture of innovation that is responsible for overall economic growth "…. innovations take place, patents are granted, products are developed. Everyone feels like tomorrow they want to invent and bring into the present."
Americans have often held a slightly myopic view of the basis for our Yankee Know-how. The truth is that much of our past brain power has been actually imported:
“The atomic bomb was invtned and brought to fruition by a bunch of European refugees; you go down the list of names, that's the [supposedly] 'Yankee know-how" - AsimovChina, India and other countries which used to send almost all of their best students to the US for education are now building their own universities and research facilities at home.
“… most of the principle scientists behind the Manhattan project… were foreign nationals. All educated in European countries… Once we developed that infrastructure here… we became the target for people to become educated from all around the world. That became a boon to our country because we were getting the smartest people in the world. My great fear is that we now educate them and they go back their home countries and we would lose the contributions they would have made had they stayed.” - Tyson
Meanwhile in the US, the final Space Shuttle was hangared last year; there currently is no replacement program in place and we must now depend on our former enemy, Russia, for our meager manned program needs. The percentage of US citizens who believe in Biological Evolution show we are at the bottom of the list of developed countries, way down there with Turkey. The Tennessee legislature last month passed a law requiring that Creationism be taught in schools along with Evolution. We are in the process of selecting the leader of the Free World based on whether or not these men feel women should have access to birth control or not. These are not encouraging indicators of a strong nation retaining it's status on the globe as a champion of innovation, leadership and progress.
When asked what could be done to restore our nation’s national standing, Neil deGrasse Tyson suggested that merely increasing the money allocated to NASA by one-half-cent of the national budget would provide remarkable return on investment toward rebuilding our economy. Tyson went on to add:
“… without this we just move back to the caves because that is where we’re going to end up anyway as the rest of the world passes us by."I would urge you to invest the time to watch both videos linked below:
1. Bill Moyers interview with Isaac Asimov. Originally aired in 1988 (runtime 5:57)
2. Neil deGrasse Tyson Testifies Before Senate Science Committee, March 7, 2012 (runtime 25:49) (Listen particularly to the question and answer period following Tyson's official testimony.)