Science is an international endeavor, but each country has to contribute according to its wealth
I don’t know which historical periods you would have to research to find a ruler as unreasonable as Donald Trump, the outgoing president of the United States. He began his term attacking the basic principles of journalism, starting with the great newspaper of his own city, The New York Times, and predictably has ended up attacking science itself; denying it, distorting it and needling its representatives, such as the immunologist, Anthony Fauci, his own pandemic adviser. In recent months, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist during the first year of his term, has even suggested he should behead Fauci and impale his head at the entrance of the White House alongside that of the director of the FBI. Bannon’s comments are more disturbing than a discussion among retired wartime generals, but he represents the kind of people the president has trusted. “Barbarians, ignorants, savages,” as the bard Cacofonix said when they hung him from a tree to stop him from playing the harp.
The numbers, however, reveal that Trump has failed in his offensive against science, or, that perhaps he said one thing but did another, I’m not entirely sure. During his four-year term, the budget of the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest public biomedical research facility, has increased by 33%, Science reports. The Energy Department budget has increased 30%. Funding for NASA and the National Science Foundation has also increased, although to a lesser extent. The 9 billion euros that Trump has invested in vaccine development is rivaled only by China. There are certain trends in the United States that even the leader of the free world cannot buck. That’s a good thing, at least in this case, right?
The ultimate reason for the persistence in stimulating research is purely political. For America’s right and left, Republicans and Democrats, the immense value that science has brought the country is a part of their DNA. This is something which touches me deeply, because the laboratory that put the United States at the forefront of the world, until then dominated by Germany, France and Britain, was that of Thomas Hunt Morgan in New York, the father of drosophila genetics, to which I devoted my youth. A bipartisan consensus was, of course, consolidated with the Manhattan Project to design the atomic bomb, and the consequent preferential treatment of particle physics, from which half our knowledge of the cosmos has been derived. Since the discovery of the double helix of DNA, molecular biology and its biomedical applications have continued to grow in importance for the members of Congress who make decisions about funding. That is why the United States continues to be the world leader in science.
The reason Spain is a marginal scientific player is not that our country’s citizens are especially ignorant, but because we need funding and political intelligence to double or triple our investment in research. Science is an international endeavor, but each country must contribute to the effort in proportion to its wealth. We are very, very far from that.