Collaborative Spirit of Millennial Generation May Benefit Big Science

The U.S. R&D enterprise needs more support, but millennials, born near the end of the 20th century, share characteristics that will serve them well if they become scientists, S. James Gates Jr. said at the AAAS-Hitachi lecture.
S. James Gates Jr. | AAAS

The United States used science and technology to great economic benefit after World War II and can continue to "master the innovation cycle" by drawing on the collaborative nature of millennials who started to come of age as the century turned, a leading physicist told a AAAS gathering recently.

S. James Gates Jr., a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland and self-described policy wonk, shared his thoughts on the future of "big science" and the challenges the nation faces as it responds to increased scientific and economic competition from abroad.

He noted that millennials, those born between 1982 and 2000, now make up a larger percentage of the U.S. population than the baby boomers born after World War II. According to the Census Bureau, millennials number 83.1 million and account for more than one quarter of the U.S. population while the boomers number 75.4 million. The millennial generation also is more diverse, Gates said, offering the possibility that creative new approaches to science may emerge.

The millennials show a willingness to embrace dramatic social shifts, are comfortable with the new technologies that have connected us via the Internet, and exhibit "a far more collaborative" streak than some previous generations, Gates said. That willingness to work in groups, share information and ideas, and collaborate on projects is highly compatible with the methods and goals of science, and Gates said it is something to be admired and fostered.

83.1 Million

The number of millennials in the U.S. population

75.4 Million

The number of baby boomers

U.S. Census Bureau

"We should draw in the potential of this generation that is extremely collaborative," Gates said. "I suspect it will unlock science, but I also think it will reignite the American dream with goods, products, and services because these are very bright people. They love to solve problems." He added, "They seem to want to do good in the world. So why shouldn't we allow them the opportunity at the realm of doing big science."

Gates spoke on 7 July at the 2015 AAAS-Hitachi Lecture on Science and Society, an annual series sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd. and organized by the AAAS Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs.

For Gates, "big science" can mean the use of big machines and big research groups, as happens at the Large Hadron Collider, the world's premier particle accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland. But is also means grappling with big questions of the sort that intrigue both scientist and lay person alike: What is the universe made of? What is consciousness? Why do we dream? Will we ever cure cancer?

In pursuit of scientific questions big and small, the United States invested in basic research in the wake of World War II, an effort that was "foundational to the American way of life," Gates said.  The nation had invested in the American people even earlier, he said, by adopting free public education for all and establishing a system of land-grant universities under the Morrill Act of 1862 that were to do pioneering research in medicine, agricultural science, and other fields and to produce a large proportion of the doctoral degrees awarded in the United States. (Gates later noted that the subsequent Morrill Act of 1890 led to establishment of historically Black land-grant colleges, an important step in the nation's commitment to all of its citizens.)

"I wholeheartedly believe that the science we call 'big science' is there to uplift our species."

S. James Gates Jr.

Gates, who serves on the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST), has become a diligent student of Washington's ways as well as the ways of theoretical physics. He also is a member of the Maryland State Board of Education and is working with the National Commission on Forensic Science. His policy-related activities are "more difficult than theoretical physics," Gates said, because they involve interacting with many people with differing views on what is going on. (Come to think of it, he said, "That does sound like theoretical physics.")

With his policy hat on, Gates reviewed some worrisome signs that American preeminence in science and technology is at risk, including the oft-cited decline in U.S. investment in research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) and the upswing in such investment by nations such as China and India. He noted China's interest in landing people on the moon, an event that probably would trigger a "technology shock" among Americans comparable to what occurred when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957.

But Gates also delivered an optimistic message about the resilience of the American educational and scientific enterprise, and discussed some prescriptions offered by PCAST and others for reinvigorating the nation's research efforts. He particularly stressed the value of public-private partnerships to help counter the increasingly tight funding streams in the federal budget.  He noted that "universities are becoming central hubs of innovation in this society in a way that was not the case in the last fifty years."

"When a new technology appears, this country has a history of being the country that takes it to scale and leverages it for economic benefit faster than other countries do."

S. James Gates Jr.

He also noted that the "enormous resources in the private sector dwarf the investment we can make by the federal government" on basic research. Few companies, however, are using their resources, as Bell Laboratories once did, in pursuit of knowledge without regard to short-term payoffs, he said.

"There are going to be challengers," Gates said. "I don't call them opponents." The United States thrives on competition, he said. "We have mastered the innovation cycle," he said. "When a new technology appears, this country has a history of being the country that takes it to scale and leverages it for economic benefit faster than other countries do."

But Gates warned against complacency, and noted a 2012 report by PCAST that identified opportunities for the United States to keep its edge in innovation, including boosting of R&D expenditures moderately to 3.0 % of GDP, making the R&D tax credit permanent, streamlining federal regulations that decrease productivity at research universities, and adopting "best practices" to improve undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

He also cited a 2014 report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences called "Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream."  Among that report's recommendations: establish a sustainable real growth rate in federal R&D funding of at least 4% a year; reduce researchers' time spent writing and reviewing grant proposals; and remove barriers to university-industry cooperation by revising  schools'  technology transfer policies.

Beyond such specific prescriptions, Gates said, researchers must situate their push for science "in the context of the quality of life of the American people." It is not enough to say that science, like spinach, is good for you and let it go at that, Gates said. Researchers must find ways to better explain science to both legislators and the general public. "We have got to close the loop in the story in a much more effective way," he said.

Gates cited three avenues of change that he thinks will benefit the R&D enterprise in the coming years: the aforementioned promise of the millennial generation; the new technology that continues to connect all of us in ways not previously possible; and the impact of the globalization of the economy.

"You can see the technology on the horizon as it begins to remake our economy," Gates said. As an example, he cited self-driving cars and trucks. There are approximately 2.3 million long-haul truckers in the United States, he said, whose jobs eventually could be on the line. "If you think that's not going to be a disruptive technology," Gates said, "you are not thinking it through."

But while science and technology may feed the "creative destruction of capitalism," Gates said, they also can be harnessed for the betterment of society.  Investment in science will be essential as nations cope with the impact of global climate change, he said. And more broadly, science will continue to play an important role in service to humanity.  "I wholeheartedly believe that the science we call 'big science' is there to uplift our species," Gates said.  "When I am doing my personal science, I am doing the best thing I can for our species."