As I write this at my summer desk in the entomology museum at Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University Entomology Museum in Yangling, China, about one hour west of Xi’an, workers have been continually carting new insect drawers through the walkway to the insect museum. And this is the second day they have been bringing in these supplies. The collections here already form the largest collections of leafhoppers in the world, and they are expanding all of their collections.
What makes this more ominous for the United States is that our National Science Foundation has placed a moratorium on museum grants for the 2016 year, putting on hold the same types of activities I describe above for China. Collection curators across the United States are tightening their belts and holding their breath. But as we observe both the U.S. and state legislatures downsize funding for most things "science" including emergency requests for the Zika virus, there is a stark contrast between the public and political attitudes toward science in China and the United States.
This became even clearer last week when Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Chinese national conference on science and technology in Beijing on May 30, 2016. His address reflected the attitude of Chinese today that so reminds me of the U.S. attitude toward science in the 1950s and 1960s.
Door-to-door surveys of Americans back then asked "Will tomorrow be better than today?"
And Americans responded enthusiastically "Yes!" Not only were our economic conditions generally improving, but we were going to the Moon!
Ask that question in this last decade (Great Recession, greater income disparity, two-party gridlock) and the answer in America is a resounding "No!" And data show that while America has never had as many millionaires as we have today, the average American has good reason to believe that our children will have a more difficult life.
Ask about science today and far too many Americans likewise fear advances in embryo research, cloning, and GM agriculture. Many see science as another politicized or commercial activity, from global warming to driver-less cars.
China reminds me of the U.S. in our former science enthusiastic decades. Yes, China is going to the Moon. But they know tomorrow will be better than today because today is dramatically better than yesterday. They joke that the national bird is the crane—the construction crane, that is—because construction is still moving full steam ahead and cranes are everywhere.
I edit the English of nearly a hundred Chinese science papers per year and most of them are partly underwritten by their National Natural Science Foundation. The criteria for promotion at all of China’s universities is publication—modeled after the U.S. Carnegie I Research Universities—and it is highly rewarded. As a result, the number of Chinese authors of research published in the top science journals Nature and Science is poised to overtake the number of American authors.
China’s President Xi Jinping laid out the clear goal that "China should establish itself as one of the most innovative countries by 2020 and a leading innovator by 2030" according to Xinhua News. The final objective is to become the "world-leading science and technology power"—read that as "Number One" in the world—by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2049. They are backing up those words by doubling their national natural science foundation budget over the next few years. Yes: double!
The contrast between the parade of new insect drawers that is occurring behind me as their collection expands 55 percent, versus the year-long freeze in U.S. museum spending my colleagues face back home, is ominous.
I again recall the words of India’s first Prime Minister Nehru: "The future belongs to those countries that make friends with science."
And right now, the U.S. is not very science friendly.