The scientific dark age of George Bush

University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska, a onetime Bush appointee, says scientific research and education are sputtering in the "dark time" of the Bush years. He also says Washington state's higher ed system is failing the next generation.
Crosscut archive image.

Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. (UW)

University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska, a onetime Bush appointee, says scientific research and education are sputtering in the "dark time" of the Bush years. He also says Washington state's higher ed system is failing the next generation.

While researching my story on Sputnik's impact on Seattle, I e-mailed Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill and Melinda Gates chair in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. Lazowska is also an investor in Crosscut. I was interested in his thoughts on how Sputnik influenced scientific research and education. And I wondered if the popularization of science was more difficult since the current White House is so widely regarded as "anti-science."

Lazowska is in a position to have an informed opinion, having been appointed by Bush as co-chair of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee. I thought it was worth quoting his reply at length:

Here are a few quick observations ...

It's universally acknowledged that America's research-intensive universities – public and private – continue to be the envy of the world. This university system is a creature of two occurences of the early 1950s: Vannevar Bush's argument for public investment in research, and the public interest in science generated by Sputnik.

What's unique about the American university system is the way that education, research, and technology transfer are seamlessly intertwined. If you look at my field, computer science, essentially every billion-dollar sub-industry bears the stamp of this. And it's important to note that for all the talk about tech transfer, it's people transfer – the graduation of great students – that's the most important product of universities.

The years of the [George W.] Bush administration have been a black time for science in this nation. I speak with the experience of having co-chaired the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee for Bush, and having chaired the Defense Department's DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Information Science and Technology Study Group during his presidency. Funds for research, the seed corn of our future competitiveness, have decreased. And the balance of those funds has shifted from longer-range topics – the natural role of the federal government – to shorter-range topics. In the Defense Department, excessive classification of research programs, restrictions on the participation of foreign nationals, and other policy shifts have caused university researchers to abandon working with DoD, meaning that many of the nation's best minds are not focused on defense-related problems.

Note that DoD funded the research that led to the Internet during the Vietnam war – it is not that we are in a war that is the issue! Presidential scientific advisory committees have been politicized. I have seen this firsthand. The general denigration of science emanating from the White House, and the near completee failure of the President's Science Advisor, Jack Marburger, to speak out, is poisonous. Right here in Seattle, consider the Discovery Institute and its "intelligent design." ("Faith-based science" is not what made this nation the world's leader.) Think about our immigration policy. This nation became the world's leader by welcoming the best and the brightest from all nations, but today we have a devil of a time getting foreign students into UW, or hiring faculty who are foreign nationals; foreign students who are educated here are "sent back where they came from" upon graduation rather than being retained to grow the technological base of our nation.

Obviously, there is a huge pipeline issue. Eighty-five percent of our undergraduates in UW computer science and engineering are from Washington state, and they are mind-blowingly good. But that's only about 150 students a year. Kids, by and large, don't come out of K-12 prepared or inspired to pursue careers in science and engineering. Take a guess – what's the fastest growing undergraduate major in the U.S. today? "Parks, recreation, and leisure" – preparing people for the booming Alaska tour-boat industry. At the higher-ed level, did you know that Washington ranks 49th among the 50 states in the participation rate in public bachelor's education? God bless Mississippi! At the same time, we rank fifth in community college participation rate. Our higher education system is oriented toward a manufacturing economy.

What parents need to understand, in their role as parents and in their role as voters, is that it's our kids who suffer. The great jobs being created in this state involve the creation of intellectual property – software, telecommunications, biomedicine, law, articles in Crosscut. Our kids, though, are not afforded the opportunity to prepare themselves to be first-class participants in this new economy. The K-12 system is failing them (we have to stop kidding ourselves about how Washington's K-12 system stacks up against our peer states), and our higher-ed system is failing them (due to lack of capacity at the bachelor's and graduate level, rather than quality issues, for the most part).


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.