This is the last of six editorials I've been privileged to write as your "President-for-a-Year." I've intentionally placed emphasis on the extraordinary powers of scientific research and their relevance to the equally extraordinary 21st-century challenges faced by the global society. Our community, almost alone, has the opportunity to create new options for humankind's quest for the good and full life, while at the same time being responsible stewards for the environment and for future generations.
There is much to set right. There is a story of a person who was asked, "What do you think of the Bill of Rights?" His answer: "Well, if we owe it, we ought to pay it." So much for history and civics! I was reminded of that story when I heard President Bush, in his State of the Union address to Congress, say that we should take our "surplus" national income and "return" it to the people from whom the federal government "took" it.
I have two problems with that perspective. First, money spent by the federal government is money that we citizens pool to be spent for the common good—defense, education, health, transportation, research etc. That is, we already have it and are spending it for ourselves! Second, we the people have not been paying our bills for a long time. In the 1980s and early 1990s we spent $4 trillion more than we took in, and Americans all agree we need to reduce that debt. But that's not all. There are other kinds of bills we haven't been paying. For decades we've been borrowing more than cash from future generations: We have been building up other "nonmarket" debts such as pollution, environmental despoliation, lost water quality, depleted natural resources and depreciated infrastructure.
It strikes me that in this time of historic affluence we could prudently dedicate a substantial portion of our "surplus" to pay down not only accumulated "market" debt but also our national nonmarket debt. We could start with a nationwide—or even global—cleanup of polluted waters, radioactive and toxic wastes, depleted fisheries, and invasive and exotic plants. We could reinvest in the decaying, crumbling physical infrastructure of roads, schools, potable water systems, sewage treatment plants and other public works. We could work to re-establish ourselves as a nation that cares for the well-being of others by raising our participation in assistance to deserving countries to the level that other industrial countries participate. At present we are near the bottom of the list of givers.
Finally, wouldn't it be prudent to use part of the "surplus" to continue our national investment in the future by way of increases in research support, not only at the National Institutes of Health but across the board? Research is a very high-yield investment with a 30- to 50-percent rate of return. It is the engine of economic growth. Most of our wealth derives from research supported years ago by others. We have a responsibility to continue such investments to benefit the next generation.
What connection do these issues have to do with members of Sigma Xi? We have long espoused concern about the nonmarket debts that lie festering and largely ignored. Of all citizens, the research community should be speaking out about the urgency of using some of our immense wealth to seriously attack these debts instead of handing them off to the next generation. Let's start a dialogue in our chapters to better articulate the nature, scope and depth of these nonmarket debts. Who is better equipped to speak out?
John H. Gibbons
President, Sigma Xi