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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 26, 2012

Science, A Zero-Sum World, and the State of the Union

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Posted by Derek

I always regret it when politics creeps into this blog. But I just finished reading this post over at The Economist's "Free Exchange" glog, and I can't resist linking to it. The author focuses on a few lines from the President's State of the Union speech, and gets rather agitated:

Later, the president added: "Don’t let other countries win the race for the future."

The context, innocuously enough, was in calling for greater support for American research and development efforts. But the language of this statement is either daft or ghastly, depending on how charitably one is willing to read it. Is Mr Obama so dense as to miss that when America invents things other countries benefit, and vice versa? If a German discovers a cure for cancer, shouldn't we be ecstatic about that, rather than angry? Indeed, shouldn't we be quite happy and interested in ensuring that Germans and Britons and Indians have the capability and opportunity to develop fantastic new technologies? In the more nefarious reading, Mr Obama seems to accept that only relative standing really matters. A sick, poor world in which America always triumphs is preferable in all cases to one in which America maybe doesn't "win" the race to discover every last little thing that's out there to be discovered. And hell, one has to ask again whether the easiest way to prevent other countries from winning the race for the future isn't simply to blow up their labs.

Look, I understand the forgiving interpretation of these remarks. Americans are motivated by competition and patriotism, and if that's the only way to rally the country behind fundamentally sound policies like subsidies for basic research, then that's the card you play. And, in practice, Mr Obama's reforms will probably not do much more than offset the crummy, mercantilist choices made by other governments elsewhere. . .

I don't see that that's an acceptable excuse. People who live outside of America are people just like Americans, and we should all rejoice in their rising prosperity, the more so when it occurs through additions to the stock of human knowledge that will benefit people everywhere. If an American president can't communicate that simple idea to his citizenry, out of fear that he'll be drummed out of office on a wave of nationalistic outrage, then he doesn't deserve to be president and his country doesn't deserve to win a damned thing. . .

I'm very far from a zero-sum person, myself. The world really has gotten wealthier, and if we have disagreements about how that wealth is distributed, fine - as long as we first realize that we're sharing a much, much, larger pile of it than we used to. Much of that wealth has come from human ingenuity, from science and technology, and on those days when I can get my experiments to work, I like to imagine that I'm adding a bit to the pile.

And yes, I think that this was just speechmaking. But if it reflects, as it might, "permanent tendencies of heart and mind", then I have to say, I don't much like it.

Back to science after this. No more politics until November, I hope, and maybe not even then.

Comments (33) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. MolecularGeek on January 26, 2012 1:48 PM writes...

I agree that, in the purest sense knowledge, benefits us all and it's of lesser importance who makes the discovery. But this is almost a political dog-whistle for some people, myself included. What Obama was sending was as much a national security and economic policy as anything else. Some of the nations who are making research breakthroughs are fairly hostile towards the American economic hegemony as embodied in the Breton Woods system, and I don't know that they will necessarily be equitable in allowing the fruits of their discoveries to be exploited. If we don't do our own R&D in this county, we're trusting that other nations that do host and provide for it will act in our best interests, rather theirs alone. Also, I hear it as a call for jobs for those researchers. If the private sector continues to shed research positions, what happens the next time that there is a major crisis that requires technological knowledge to address? No matter what one's position on public funding of research, I think it's reasonable to say that it's better to have scientists and engineers on government-funded projects and keep them in the field and engaged, rather than have them all find other trades, and then not have enough in a time of crisis.

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2. earth23 on January 26, 2012 1:51 PM writes...

Seems rather nit-picky.

Sometimes The Economist is dead on, and other times you have to wonder what they are smoking. In particular, their recent (and self-serving) "Save the City" cover... ick.

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3. AI on January 26, 2012 2:29 PM writes...

Yeah, politically motivated drivel.

There are obvious economic, political and national security benefits to leading in R&D.

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4. Paul on January 26, 2012 2:41 PM writes...

Count your blessings! If a politician embraces the "research helps everyone" approach, wouldn't his next step be "you know, we could cut our research way back, and just be free riders on everyone else"?

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5. bad wolf on January 26, 2012 2:48 PM writes...

Funny, i just read an Economist article about South Korean education ("The one-shot society") that suddenly inserted this slap in the face to the US, for no apparent reason:

"Some 13% of Korean tertiary students study abroad, according to the OECD, a higher proportion than in any other rich country. In recent years, many have come home, not least because the American government, in a fit of self-destructive foolishness, made it much harder after September 11th 2001 for foreign students to work in America after they graduate. A survey by Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University found that most foreign students at American universities feared they would not be able to obtain a work visa. And since the application process is long and humiliating, many do not even bother to try. America’s loss is Korea’s (and India’s, and China’s) gain."

Well, which is it? Should we subsidize research and education for the rest of the world or not?

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6. CR on January 26, 2012 3:05 PM writes...

I guess I see this differently than the Economist. Rather than America cannot lose some "race", I see this more as a calling to not being complacent, keep the American drive alive. Not just settle for some entitled way of life. Call crazy, I guess.

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7. Brutus on January 26, 2012 3:28 PM writes...

Both you and the commentator have taken a narrow, even small-minded perspective view on Obama's remark that, I'm sorry to say, comes across as materially misleading. His remark is a throwaway line that a politician in any party would use. A fair-minded observer recognizes this and might reflect that of all the nationalist statements a leader could make, this one is among the most benign. He's not talking about eradicating other sovereign states, or bullying them into submission, or stealing their resources. He's talking about a race to the top - everyone who participates wins! Pity your political blind spot didn't allow you to acknowledge that.

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8. Bruce Hamilton on January 26, 2012 3:34 PM writes...

Economist authors appear to be pimply youth with minimal real world experience who want to drive the misguided onto the path of true economic enlightenment. In their creed, greed is a corporate virtue.

America's gift to the world is allowing bright foreign students access to the best tertiary education available on the planet and challenge them to rise to the very top of their field.

Like the Columbo Plan, the desire is that students help their host country whilst learning, and most will return home and help build their nation.

I don't follow US politics, other than for entertainment, but Obama's aspirations for excellence and leadership is surely what is expected of any politician. Why vote for mediocrity?.

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9. Aspirin on January 26, 2012 3:44 PM writes...

It doesn't matter whether Obama or anyone else does or does not think that the US is in a "race". The point is that China, India and others seriously think so, especially China. Not recognizing this is our loss.

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10. BioBritSD on January 26, 2012 3:45 PM writes...

I like the Economist. But I think this is a huge stretch from this comment from Obama. I don't think wanting your country to "win the race" is synonymous with wanting other countries to fail. IMO you can simultaneously want the world to benefit from great discoveries and want your country to be in the forefront of making them.

There are tangible advantages to the country to being the source of great discoveries and innovation - more startups, higher valuations of existing companies is a better way to drive higher employment than not. More successful companies usually pay more taxes. Other countries will benefit too, but the people who invent stuff, or the companies in which they work, do add extra to their host counties.

This speaks to me that the president wants the American people to be proud of their scientists, engineers and innovators, and to see the value of investing in their research and education. This contrasts with the alternate of cutting taxes, cutting taxes and only funding a larger military (and perhaps a moon base).

So.... Daft? Ghastly? A huge stretch for me. And the blog seems like a massive extrapolation what what was actually said.

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11. Derek Lowe on January 26, 2012 4:17 PM writes...

Maybe the Economist blog did make too much of a leap. But then again, there are quotes like this from the speech:

"Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win."

"I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany. . ."

I agree that SOTU speeches are mostly boilerplate, but something about this one struck me the wrong way. Maybe it was the complaints about China (et al.) subsidizing their industries, while at the same time talking about the way the US government got the US auto industry (supposedly) back on its feet, and how we should give tax breaks to companies that agree not to hire people outside the US.

Aah, politics. I swear, no more around here for months.

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12. JRnonchemist on January 26, 2012 4:22 PM writes...

As far as the use of win goes, from an American perspective, the guy who comes in second is still a loser. For more on that, see the purported version of Patton's speech to the troops that can be found on the net.

So, almost certainly speechifying.

National prestige hardly something that any American politician would argue against, but there are different ways of arguing for it, and just about any Federal level politician can make use of that sort of argument.

As far as American Nationalists are concerned, I imagine that they have already come to some conclusions about how displeased/pleased they are with Obama. I can't see the choice of words here as having more than a trivial effect on that matter, and on the election as a whole.

Those points in the original article suggested a level of ignorance of the American political background consistent with a foreigner, which seems to be confirmed by the London header in the original.

I think I'll recuse myself from speaking on the issue of 'fundamentally sound policies'.

I think that despite the competitiveness, enthusiasm, emotions, money, and prestige Americans have tied up in sports, we see relatively few planned murders.

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13. libfree on January 26, 2012 4:26 PM writes...

well said

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14. DrSnowboard on January 26, 2012 4:36 PM writes...

Clearly (to pick up on a throwaway in an earlier comment) what's needed insteadis a commitment of >5% of US GDP to a permanent moon base by 2020 or thereabouts...

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15. MTK on January 26, 2012 4:42 PM writes...

I guess I don't understand the problem here.

what the hell is he supposed to say?

"It's OK if China or Germany or France passes us in science, because we'll all benefit."


"American jobs are fine, but Chinese jobs are just as good."


"We don't need GM when Kia makes a car just as good and cheaper."

C'mon, man. He can't say those things even if they were true. I'm no nationalist or protectionist, or anything. In fact, I'm probably more of a free market globalist than just about anybody, but hell, I at the same time I want a President that wants this country to be competitive out in the world and says it. If I heard the president say something like, "It's Ok not being #1", I'd vote him out in a second.

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16. johnnyboy on January 26, 2012 4:51 PM writes...

Yes, speechifying, certainly. This type of comment about the need to preserve american hegemony in all aspects of world affairs is so common in US political speech as to be recognized by sensible americans as mandatory boilerplate, (if it is noticed at all). But as a non-american I can tell you, even if I hear it every day, it still really, really grates on the ears, especially when you're from one the less aggressive western countries. So I can empathize with the Economist's blogger's response. BTW, it also grates when I hear it from the chinese...

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17. Curious Wavefunction on January 26, 2012 5:06 PM writes...

Agree with the comments about the hegemony-preserving boilerplate. Every president since Theodore Roosevelt, if not Monroe, has said pretty much the same thing. The whole argument about hegemony might have been ok when there were two superpowers, but not in today's globalized world. Plus as Derek and others pointed out, the whole notion of a race where somebody has to lose so that others win is fundamentally incompatible with the way the world is evolving. And ultimately of course, this idea that the US simply cannot be prosperous and cutting edge if it doesn't "win" is flawed.

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18. g on January 26, 2012 5:28 PM writes...

In the flattening of the world with globalization and information age, our standards of living will go down while everyone else's goes up. In a world of increasingly scarce resources, I want the US to have the biggest share. If the cost of their "rising prosperity" is a reduction in my current prosperity, I don't want it.

Competition greases the wheels in the "free market". Thus, competitive nationalistic tendencies can be a good thing.

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19. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on January 26, 2012 5:46 PM writes...

President Obama will go down as one of the worst presidents in US history after people have recovered from Obamamania. He has no grasp of economics as he has never worked in the private sector, aka, "Real World."

The Obamabots in the press, and the Economist is one of them, need at least a generation to recover from this ailment.

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20. luysii on January 26, 2012 6:00 PM writes...

What a friend we had in Hitler! Back in the day (1960 to be exact), after sitting through a heavily accented lecture, Don Voet opined that the universal scientific language was broken English. Of course this country was ahead of everyone then. We had most of Europe's brains, and the continent was still rebuilding, as was Japan, as was China.

I'm somewhat surprised that we don't have more brains here from the Middle East, giving the chronic upheavals over there (Ahmed Zewail, E. J. Corey excepted).

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21. BioBritSD on January 26, 2012 6:42 PM writes...

@MTK - If he said that I'd have to disagree. My KIA was a total POS, and my old Ford did way better by comparison.

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22. JasonP on January 26, 2012 8:35 PM writes...

"President Obama will go down as one of the worst presidents in US history after people have recovered from Obamamania. He has no grasp of economics as he has never worked in the private sector, aka, "Real World.""

Pfft, you're dead wrong. We already just had one of the worst in history. It is hard to see the brilliance of Obama when the country is in as deep a hole as it is. Everyone wants the president to make millions of jobs and turn the economy around, but the reality is the only branch of the government that can do anything about that is the legislative branch.

Unfortunately that branch of the government has too many corrupt, sociopathic Republicans and Teahadists who hate this African American president so much they are willing to drag it into the ground to realize the story they are trying to create to prove their flawed ideologies and crazed Glen Beckian, Ann Randian foaming-at-the-mouth dystopian dialogue.

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23. JasonP on January 26, 2012 8:47 PM writes...

To respond to this blog post: I think that it is rather optimistic to suggest that a loss in research muscle does not have direct geopolitical consequences. If that tech edge is gone, then in the future it is possible for another area of the world to cut itself off, particularly a part of the world with more totaliarian governance, and leave the rest in a state of need. Not to mention the economic wealth generated for a nation by being the first to profit from a thing.

The only country you can really trust when the crap hits the fan is your own.

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24. PorkPieHat on January 26, 2012 9:39 PM writes...

You gotta be kidding me. So…..we want a president who is NOT going to get our competitive juices up? NOT going to encourage us to be in control of our destiny?

I get it…you got him right where you want him…damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. Brilliant! We can blame him either way!

Give me a break.

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25. gippgig on January 26, 2012 9:53 PM writes...

This is one reason why nations should not exist.

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26. @JasonP on January 26, 2012 10:06 PM writes...

"It is hard to see the brilliance of Obama when the country is in as deep a hole as it is."

Dude, what "brilliance" are you talking about? I'm not politically aligned, however even I'm befuddled by Obama's Nobel Peace Prize! He is nowhere near the same level as Aung San Suu Ki, Nelson Mandela, or Medicins sans Frontiers. Moreover, he throttled many environmentalists in his SOTU by pledging to support fracking.

"The only country you can really trust when the crap hits the fan is your own."

Regarding the thread's topic, the following account of an interaction between Obama and Steve Jobs paints a clear picture of their shared "loyalty" for the USA (excerpt from The San Francisco Chronicle):

When it came to his turn, Jobs talked about the United States' lack of software engineers, and said that any foreign student who got an engineering degree at a U.S. university should automatically be offered a green card. Obama responded that such a change had to be part of the proposed Dream Act - allowing undocumented immigrants who graduated from a U.S. high school to become legal residents - which Republicans had blocked.

Bottom Line: All politicians are crooks, just to varying degrees.

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27. Anonymous Academic on January 26, 2012 10:31 PM writes...

@19: "The Obamabots in the press, and the Economist is one of them, need at least a generation to recover from this ailment."

This kind of statement always makes my head spin. I've been an Economist subscriber for about two and a half years, and they've been consistently critical of Obama's policies - always respectful towards the individual, and often hopeful that he'll come around to their way of thinking, but hardly servile or fawning. I have to wonder at the thought processes of anyone who believes that just because a media outlet doesn't vociferously denounce the president as a Marxist Muslim fifth columnist, they're "Obamabots". I'll bet you spent most of the mid-2000s tut-tutting about "Bush Derangement Syndrome", didn't you?

As for the substance of the speech, I agree with most of the other commenters - pretty tepid stuff, and hardly a full-frontal assault on China et al. There's nothing inconsistent with supporting (as I do) free trade, global capitalism, and the aspirations of developing nations, while still rooting for your country to come out on top. Sure, it would be great if Chinese researchers discover a cure for cancer, but is it so wrong to wish that Americans find it instead?

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28. anonymous on January 26, 2012 11:58 PM writes...

I loved the speech, although it is 30 years late. I have been a republican my whole life, but after this speech I will vote for Obama. I have seen small towns across the midwest decimated by companies closing up and sending those jobs overseas.
I thought, as a highly educated PhD at the time, this would not effect me. How wrong I was. Ten years later, I saw my job go to China.
It is a zero sum game. Chemistry jobs were decimated here and sent to China. I hope he punishes the crap out of these Benedict Arnold companies and rewards the patriotic companies. My next profession I am studying for cannot be outsourced, however, there is one less chemist here in the US, doing what he was trained to do.

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29. Boghog on January 27, 2012 1:02 AM writes...

@23: JasonP:

"Not to mention the economic wealth generated for a nation by being the first to profit from a thing."

That was the first thing to pop into my head when I read this blog post. While a rising tide lifts all boats, it doesn't necessarily do so equally. The United States through the NIH has invested heavily in biomedical research. This research has not only helped to improved the medical treatment of Americans and others around the world, it has also stimulated the formation the biotech industry. The proximity of many of these biotech companies to university labs funded by the NIH is no accident. Furthermore, while research results are published and read by scientists around the world, patent applications are filed for many academic discoveries before they are published. The only fly in the ointment is that American universities have become too greedy in negotiations in licensing this technology which creates a strong disincentive to technology transfer.

Silicon Valley is another example of an industry created through federal R&D funding. Again, while the entire world benefited from this research, the economic benefits of such research are disportionately local.

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30. Duck on January 27, 2012 8:46 AM writes...

Why link to one of the worst articles the Economist has written in years. It is a pile of subjective whining about what Obama had to say to a room full of silly children.

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31. Will on January 27, 2012 10:03 AM writes...

Agree with most of the posters that "winning the race" to a particular discovery has disproportional economic benefits - everyone benefits from a cure for cancer, but if a foreign company discovers it, it's that company (and the government that taxes its profits) that gains economically

also, obama is (ridicuously) accused of not being sufficiently american, his sotu speech is carefully crafted not to throw any low hanging fruit for conservative pundits to slam as un-patriotic

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32. John Wayne on January 27, 2012 10:06 AM writes...

I took those comments in a very different way. I'd like to suggest that the United States has benefited from a 'frontier mentality' of positive immigration. Over the last few hundred years, our society has been selected from people willing to leave their homes to look for something better (economically, politcally, religious, etc.) As such, the United States is enriched, via selection, in people who want to push the limits and make something better. Those that originally came here tended to pass on those positive traints to their children. This is what we are starting to loose due to a combination of a poor economy, more restrictive immigration politices and plain old lethargy.

I pretty much hate all politicians, but I hope that Obama meant that he wanted to get that edge back. Several of my friends (chemists, mostly) have moved to Shanghai in search of something better; this is our loss (and China's gain).

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33. CanBio on January 27, 2012 3:27 PM writes...

He needs to have the NIH pay postdocs more:

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