The Federal Government is Not Useless

There has been much haranguing about the apparent uselessness of the federal government. While I am no political pundit, I can speak about my little corner of the universe. The US federal government includes something called the National Institutes of Health or NIH, which happens to be the largest scientific research organization in the world. With a budget of over $30 billion, it spends more on research than Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Google, and Apple combined, supporting over 300,000 researchers nationwide. It also employs 6,000 scientists internally, who collectively produce more biomedical research than any other organization in the United States. What does it mean for the NIH staff to be furloughed? It means that every single day, 16.4 research years are wasted, or about three Ph.D. theses. This is likely to be an underestimate because the scientists employed by the NIH are professionals whose scientific output exceeds that of graduate students, and the quality of NIH-produced research backs this up. What kind of research will be delayed every day? You can read the list yourself, but it includes things like deciphering the genetic code, inventing MRI, and sequencing the human genome. This is not hyperbole; all these discoveries were made by NIH-supported researchers, who have received 83 Nobel prizes in total.

The US is the world’s preeminent scientific superpower, “a player without peer” as Nature recently put it. Only through profound and self-inflicted displays of stupidity such as we have witnessed during the past 24 hours will this cease to be the case.

The American Experiment in the Chinese Century

There is an undeniable air of melancholy in America today. Everywhere it seems there is a growing sense that our best days are behind us, that the American Century is coming to an end, with the inevitable rise of China and a concomitant Chinese Century. There is also, of course, much in the way of punditry regarding how fast this will happen, or whether it will happen at all. My own feeling is that regardless of the details, the transition is inevitable. China, despite its non-trivial challenges and problems, is unstoppable (and if it weren’t, should it be stopped, given the likely millions who will be lifted out of poverty by its rise?), and thus regardless of whether it will happen in 2020 or 2050, many of us will live to see the day when the United States is no longer the world’s preeminent superpower.

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