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Does Business Support Science?

Does business support science? Yes and no. On the one hand, prominent CEOs and Chairmen work with scientists, lab directors and university heads to produce documents urging the enhancement of science and technology as a way to improve our nation’s economic prosperity. On the other hand, these same businesspeople have teamed up with religious fundamentalists in the Republican Party who denigrate science and boost anti-science concepts such as “intelligent design.” Which side is business on?

Recently, the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, which includes the National Academy of Sciences as well as other top national organizations, has issued a report, Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, which says we must encourage the education and development of scientists and engineers in order to maintain our competitiveness.

The Committee consists of a who's who of business as well as of technology and academe. Included are CEOs of Lockheed Martin, DuPont, ExxonMobil and Merck; the chairman of the board of Intel; and a vice president of Eli Lilly.

In the introduction, the executive summary states:

Economic studies conducted before the information-technology revolution have shown that even then as much as 85% of measured growth in US income per capita is due to technological change."

Then it hits us with:

"Having reviewed trends in the United States and abroad, the committee is deeply concerned that the scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength. We strongly believe that a worldwide strengthening will benefit the world’s economy—particularly in the creation of jobs in countries that are far less well-off than the United States. But we are worried about the future prosperity of the United States. Although many people assume that United States will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world. We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost—and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all."

So you see, business is worried about America's eroding strength in science and technology. And well it should. But if it is so concerned, why does it join with the religious right that is anti-intellectual and is attacking science with the crazy ideas of "intelligent design" and is trying to make stem-cell research impossible? Yes, businesspeople work with religious extremists in order to increase the power of the Republican Party. When they do so, they discourage those who may be interested in scientific careers. In this sense, business is working against its own self-interest.

Why does business do this? For several decades business has been working on the assumption that what is good for labor is not good for business. Business thinks of business as a zero-sum game. But it is not! As the above study points out, business needs labor in the form of scientists and engineers. It also needs many other forms of labor. The big secret that is finally coming out is that people - a better word for labor - are the backbone of the most succesful companies.

Business is mistreating its backbone. No wonder it is wracking in pain that is expected to become intense in the future. Maybe it's time to break its bond with religious extremists and educate the public on the virtues of science and rationality. Perhaps it should take care of its people better. It would not hurt if it gave its employees a little security and an occasional tap on the back.

To steer our economy out of the wilderness, business must unequivacally support science and the people working with science and technology. It must recognize that a great business cannot exist without great people - labor.

Posted by Paul Siegel at October 14, 2005 6:18 PM