Frank Press, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, warns that the country's scientific infrastructure is in desperate need of modernization. If university and other laboratories are unable to replace aging and obsolescent equipment, the nation's leading role in basic scientific research as well as its future economic growth will be jeopardized. Right now the government spends only about $20 million a year to upgrade these vital facilities; in fact, studies find that billions are needed in the coming decade. Press is right, urgently right, about the problem. The shocker is his idea about how to pay for modernization.
Press proposes that Japan donate $100 million a year to improve decrepit laboratories, in gratitude, as he puts it, for the U.S. education and training that tens of thousands of Japanese students and scientists receive.
What's wrong with this idea? Leaving aside that gratitude is something to be offered rather than solicited, what's wrong is that it comes very close to being an act of national abasement to ask another country to do what the U.S. government and private industry can and should be doing on their own.
It's absurd to pretend that in an economy of nearly $5 trillion, money can't be found to modernize basic research facilities. It's humiliating that the world's richest country must even consider going hat in hand to overseas donors. Science labs are essential instruments of progress, not fluff. A country that forgets that is getting ready to settle for second best.