Eating the Seed Corn

One way to ensure impoverishment in the future is to recklessly eat the seed corn. Practically everything that is good about the US comes from its awesome higher education system. It is arguably the world’s best. One indicator is the number of Nobel prizes it gets each year. Just this year, of the 12 people who shared the five (I am ignoring the peace prize joke) prizes, 10 are Americans. But how long will this last?

Bob Herbert in an op-ed in NYTimes (Oct 3rd) wrote, “there are ominous cracks appearing in that cornerstone of American civilization.”

Exhibit A is the University of California, Berkeley, the finest public university in the world and undoubtedly one of the two or three best universities in the United States, public or private.

More of Berkeley’s undergraduates go on to get Ph.D.’s than those at any other university in the country. The school is among the nation’s leaders in producing winners of the Nobel Prize. An extraordinary amount of cutting-edge research in a wide variety of critically important fields, including energy and the biological sciences, is taking place here.

Oliver Williamson, who shares this year’s Nobel in economics, is from UC Berkeley.

But there’s a budget crisis in California and the state decided to cut UC Berkeley’s budget this year by $150 million and the cut to the entire higher education system (the UC and the California State schools) by over $800 million. Herbert writes:

So it’s dismaying to realize that the grandeur of Berkeley (and the remarkable success of the University of California system, of which Berkeley is the flagship) is being jeopardized by shortsighted politicians and California’s colossally dysfunctional budget processes.

I worry about not just UC Berkeley but what is happening to education in the US. They are destroying something that took nearly two centuries to build. Funding for basic scientific research is falling. In 1993, they cut the funding to the Super-conducting Super Collider which was being built in Texas.

Steven Weinberg, Nobel prize winning physicist, wrote about a compact between science and society. That compact is breaking down in the US.

For centuries, the relations between science and society have been governed by a tacit bargain. Scientist generally want to make discovers that are universal or beautiful or fundamental, whether or not they can foresee any specific benefit to society. Some people who are not themselves scientists find this sort of pure science exciting, but society, . . . , has generally been willing to support work in pure science mostly because it expects that it will yield applications. This expectation has generally proved correct. It is not that any work in science is liable to occasionally to stumble onto something useful. Rather, it is just that when we push back the frontiers of knowledge we expect to find things that are really new, and that may be useful, in the way that radio waves and electrons and radioactivity have turned out to be useful. And the effort to make these discoveries also forces us into the sort of technological and intellectual virtuosity that leads on to other applications. [Epilogue. “Dreams of a Final Theory” 1994. Pages 281-82]

In California, they are eating their seed corn. They are funding more prisons. They will need them if they continue to cut funding to education.

Author: Atanu Dey


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