This article is from the In-Depth Report In Defense of Science
Science Talk

Under the Dome: Scientific American Editor in Chief Talks to the Senate

Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina testifies before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about the value of scientific research and development. Also testifying is Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet and Google’s vice president and "chief Internet evangelist." The hearings took place July 17, 2014

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky: Welcome to the Scientific American podcast science talk hosted on July 22, 2014.  I’m Steve Mirsky.  On this episode –

Senator Jay Rockefeller: Ms. Mariette DiChristina is the first woman to lead a 169 year old Scientific American which is the longest continuing publication in the United States of America.

Steve Mirsky: That’s Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.  He’s the chair of the Senate committee on commerce, science and transportation. And on Thursday, July 17, Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina testified before the committee at a hearing titled, “The Federal Research Portfolio Capitalizing on Investments in R and D.”  The entire hearing goes on for about two hours but don’t worry I only have about 13 minutes for you.  We’ll hear DiChristina’s opening statement preceded by the opening statement of Vint Cerf.  He’s often called one of the fathers of the internet and currently carries the title of Google’s Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist. We throw it to Rockefeller introducing Cerf.

Senator Jay Rockefeller: Dr. Cerf.  You’re gonna be first

Vint Cerf:Thank you very much Mr. Chairman and ranking member Thune, there is no substitute for deep understanding of natural and artificial phenomena.  Especially when our national and global wellbeing depend on our ability to model and make predictions regarding them.  Government support for basic and applied research is crucial.  Not only does it bring great civil and economic benefits, but the government also has the unique capacity to sustain this kind of effort.

You are all well aware of the fundamentals of the scientific paradigm.  Theories are developed to explain observations or to speculate on how and why things might work.  Experiments are done to validate or refute the predications of the theory and theories are revised based on experimental results.  Basic and applied research go hand in hand.  Basic research tries to understand and applied research tries to do. And often one must pursue both in the effort to uncover new knowledge.

The internet is a great example of how successful applied research projects develop.  It took ten years for the internet to reach operational status.  It’s still the subject of research and further development is new and often unexpected applications are invented every day.  Validation of basic research may take a long time.  Results are not always guaranteed.

Consider the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson.  Peter Higgs and his colleagues postulated the existence of this fundamental particle around 1964.  But it’s taken 50 years to achieve the experimental capacity to test the theory.  Research also requires humility.  Every scientist must be prepared to cast aside or revise a pet theory if measurement and observation contradict it.

Failure is the handmaiden of wisdom in the scientific world.  Understanding the reason for failure is sometimes even more important than positive results.  It may pave the way for deeper understanding.  The freedom to accept the potential of failure makes the difference between an incremental refinement and a breakthrough.  Einstein's special and general theory of relativity shattered the complacency of the Newtonian model of the universe.  Research into the nature of the atom led to the development of quantum field theory.

Relativity and quantum field theory have not been reconciled and now we believe that the physics of the very small are extremely relevant to the study of the universe at large.  If we’ve learned anything over the course of the past 100 years, it’s that we know less than we once thought we know about the world around us.  For scientists this only means that discovery awaits at every turn.

Sustainable business are rarely in a position to invest in long term research.  The US has benefitted from underwriting this kind of work as exemplified by that research programs of DARPA, NSF, NIH, and NIST among many others.  Consistent and increasing support for basic and applied research and advanced development has been the source of most major advancements in science and technology in the last 70 years. 

It has played a large role in making the American economy the envy of the world.  In this area, the congressional committees focused on scientific research and development have extremely important roles to play.  We’re living through a renaissance of computing that will transform our ability to understand global phenomena.  New disciplines such as computational biology, computational chemistry and computational physics use increasingly detailed and accurate models to make predictions that we can test in the laboratory.

The resulting breakthroughs could help people live longer, healthier and more productive lives.  As Richard Hamming famously observed, “The purpose of computing is insight not numbers.”  The 2013 Nobel Prize for chemistry went to three NSF funded researchers for their computer models of molecular processes.  It’s sometimes said that we’re all born natural scientists but that our educational system erodes this curiosity with poorly constructed curricular content and style of presentation.

Computers and networks may have a role to play there as well.  Along with the association for computing machinery, I believe every student should have some exposure to programming.  I’ve been a strong proponent of the proposition that computer science should be a required part of the K through 12 curriculum treated on a par with the other STEM subjects. 

The maker movement accelerated by the development of 3D printers and the internet of things is perhaps one of the most important trends in modern culture.  Stimulated by NIST and NSF and the America Competes Act, advanced manufacturing in the maker movement have the potential to recapture American initiative and interest in a space that historically had moved offshore.  And while absolutely not a panacea, massive online open courses have a transformative potential for the education system in their ability to deliver affordable, high quality content at scale and individualized learning in appropriate educational areas.

In conclusion, government support for basic and applied research is crucial.  I am proud and privileged to serve on NSF’s national science board. NSF’s scientific and education program relies on widely solicited proposals, a well-tested peer review system, dedicated and well qualified program managers and strongly motivated and highly effective leadership.  Successful government scientific endeavors depend upon a partnership among the research community, research agency leadership and staff and the members of the house and senate who are equally committed to the research. 

Vannevar Bush got it exactly right.  Science is an endless frontier.  The more we learn, the more we know we don’t know and the more we must dedicate ourselves to learning and knowing more.  Thank you.

Senator Jay Rockefeller: Thank you, sir.  Ms. Mariette DiChristina is editor in chief – this blows me away.  You’re the first woman to lead a 169-year-old Scientific American which is the longest continuing publication in the United States of America, am I right?

Mariette DiChristina: Yes.  Thank you Chairman Rockefeller so much and ranking members here on the committee.  So yes, my name is Mariette DiChristina.  I am the editor in chief of Scientific American, which has chronicled the power of US research and innovation since 1845 when it was founded.  Scientific American also founded the first branch of the U.S. patent agency in 1850 and among the inventors that came and visited the editor’s offices was Thomas Edison.  Albert Einstein wrote for Scientific American.

And so have more than 150 Nobel laureates and many winners of the U.S. national medals of science and technology.  It reaches more than 3.5 million viewers and readers in print and more than 6 million online.  And the readers include leaders in business and policy, educators, students and science enthusiasts the world over.

From this I’m giving you a professional observer’s opinion about science.  Science is the engine of human prosperity.  Economists have said – and it’s been quoted many places – that a third to half U.S. economic growth has resulted from basic research since World War II.  The cars and trains that got us here today.

Think about it.  The smart phones in our pockets, the energy that lights this chamber and this room, the clothes we wear, the food we eat – all of these things were developed and improved through basic research.  But before these applications existed, researchers had to study the basic concepts that provided a sound underpinning and they did those studies not necessarily knowing where they would lead.  I know Einstein for instance was not at all thinking about the GPS in our smart phones when he formulated the theory of relativity.

But in truth, knowing how space time works helps us fix those measurements from the GPS satellites.  And Elizabeth Blackburn told me that she was just curious about what was at the end of chromosomes when she started studying the DNA of pond scum in the 1970s.  The NIH started funding her research in 1978 and in 2009, she and two fellow NIH grantees – Carol Greider and Jack Szostak– won a Nobel for their work in understanding what’s at the end of those chromosomes.  Structures called Telomeres which we now understand to play an important role in human cancers and other diseases of aging.

Examples like Elizabeth Blackburn show us why providing steady and sufficient support for basic research should be a national priority.  We need to take a long view on R&D for the nation’s future just as we need to nurture our children over their entire K through 12 academic careers.  Just so they can succeed in an increasingly competitive global market place.  But research like those children takes time to do right. 

Typical funding grants on average are five years long and it takes time to run those experiments, gather the data analyze it properly and confirm those findings.  Our own track record in the US proves that steady federal funding support leads to success.  US Federal funding was key to nearly 90% of almost 100 top innovations from 1971 to 2006 – as identified by R&D magazine. 

Our nation’s ability to handle today’s most pressing issues from providing energy security let’s say to curing illnesses to living sustainably in a finite world will require the innovations that come from basic research.  It also does provide a good return.  In a particularly strong example that people like to point out, the human genome project paid back $141.00 per every dollar invested in it during the research period.  And in general, you should know, that the return for publicly funded R&D is somewhere between 30% and 100%.  That’s a pretty strong return.

And from my perspective also, for the public’s behalf, basic research can be really inspiring.  Vint mentioned the maker movement which is such a phenomenon that the US office of science and technology policy is actually holding maker fair events.  But even beyond that let me give you another example.  The Zooniverse Web site for instance lets anybody catalogue heavenly objects made from NASA photographs.  It has more than a million volunteers participating actively in science.

Thousands of Scientific American’s own volunteers catalogue more than 100000 whale songs in just two months which is the work of years in the lab.  Unfortunately, since the ‘80s R&D spending overall has flattened out a bit and even declined in real dollars but I agree with you Chairman that we need patience and endurance for this.  Because of the length of time needed for research also the sequester cuts will effect progress for years to come in forestalled and cancelled work and will disproportionately affect and discourage some of our younger researchers.

Meanwhile, countries such as China – they’re nipping at our heels.  Earlier this year in fact China’s rate of GDP investment just surpassed that of the 28 member states of the European Union and could exceed that of the US itself in a little over half a decade according to the 2014 global R&D forecast by Patel and R&D magazine.  Japan, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel and Sweden already spend a greater percentage of their GDP on research than the US according to World Bank. 

Strong educational pipeline as you pointed out is also critical.  Over the past 10 years, STEM jobs grew three times as fast as non-STEM says the US Department of Commerce.  And our leading technology companies are often challenged in filling the necessary openings.  And in conclusion for one more view, I thought I’d ask a member of the next generation.

I told my older daughter Selena – who plans to double major in computer science and graphic design – yay – that I’d be speaking with you about this today.  And I asked her what she would say about science.  And she said, “That’s easy Mom.  It’s the foundation of everything.”  And so it is.  Science is the system for exploring and for innovation.  It can fuel our nation’s economic growth.  It can form a path for our young people in a competitive global market place and it can inspire and fire our imaginations.  That’s why basic research deserves a prominent place on the national agenda and our steady commitment and investment.  Thanks very much.

Senator Jay Rockefeller: Thank you very, very much.

[music plays]

Steve Mirsky:              In the complete archived Webcast of the proceedings you can also hear Neil Lane – professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University and Stephen Feinberg – professor of statistics and social science at Carnegie Melon University.  The complete Webcast also features all members of the panel responding to questions from the Senate committee members.  It’s available on the page of the Commerce committee:  Look for the menu item marked, “Hearings,” and the prepared statements of all four testifiers are on our Web site:

That’s it for this episode.  Get your science news at our Web site where you can find information about some of the citizen science projects that DiChristina mentioned in her testimony.  Just go to and follow us on Twitter.  We’ll tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site.  Our Twitter name is @sciam – S-C-I-A-M.  Scientific American Science Talk – I am Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us.

[End of Audio]

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