We look up to America for a number of good reasons. But there are a few cautionary tales as well, especially in the area of public spending.
The US, however, rarely looks outside its borders, east or west, for ideas. The Midwest, the country’s navel, is where it gazes most often. This is where elections are won or lost, and where homebred culture and cars are made.
There is a slight, but perceptible change in this mood today. Many Americans are now, rather blasphemously, asking why their country does not follow the European model of public delivery, particularly in the context of public transport and education; two areas where America is losing the marathon.
Between 2000 and 2017 there have been as many as 25 train mishaps in the US, prompting the head of Amtrak to confess that the latest crash is a “wake up call”. It took 60 years, between 1940 to 1999, for 25 train accidents to happen, but only 15 years since to clock that number. This graphically demonstrates how rapidly public railways have declined in America. We are not starting on the subject of the 56,000 US bridges that need urgent repair. This may sound and taste like India, but we are still talking America.
In 1956 the American administration, under President Eisenhower, signed what turned out to be a sweetheart deal. The new bill that now came into effect allowing gasoline to be taxed to finance highways so that private cars could speed across the country. This suited automobile makers, again largely in the Midwest, just fine. As a result, according to Mark Reutter of Progressive Policy Institute, in the first 13 years after 1956, as much as 46,350 km of interstate roadways were built and, tragically, 95,600 km of rail tracks taken out. In an ironic coincidence, 1956 was also the year when Japan started planning its high-speed trains.
Railways have never won state support in the US after their heydays in the 1930s and 1940s. Politicians complain that trains will never make money, so why fund them? In Europe, the calculations are very different. For example, France’s prestigious, high-speed TGV train service makes regular losses but gets government money anyway because the public benefits from it.
Not only does TGV reduce travel time, its wide network has also brought booms to towns, like Lille, that had gone bust in the 1950s. China’s high-speed train system is also not a financial success, but the country is going ahead with planning a 500 kmph railway system anyway.
Again, on the education and intellectual front, the slashing of public funds in the US is hurting. The 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that 15 year old Americans are at the 38th position in science when compared with those of the same age in 71 countries. These are not just first degree burns and it may take Americans a long time to recover.
According to a careful study by Yu Xie and Alexandra Killewald, scientific publications have steadily fallen in the US while in China, an outlier for decades, they are rising. China’s R&D spending is growing by 20% annually but, in contrast, America recently slashed $6 billion from the budget of its National Institute of Health. In 1965, as much as 60% of all scientific research was publicly sponsored. Today it stands at a mere 35%.
Consequently, as many as 2.5 million jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are lying vacant in the US. This may sound like an evolutionary throwback, but 56% of Republicans believe higher education is bad for morals and may not be great for the brain either. Contrast this with France where rivals Emmanuel Macron and Marie Le Pen disagree on practically everything but agree on raising state funding for education.
Private education, such as it is in America, dis-incentivises higher studies as they have become so expensive. A 2012 survey showed that seven out of ten college seniors in the US have student loans amounting to as much as $30,000 per person. Investing so much for an uncertain future turns many Americans away from universities. According to Wall Street Journal, the majority of science and technology students in the US are either Chinese or South Koreans.
America may still boast that it has the largest number of Nobel Prize winners. But 40% of their science Nobel Laureates are immigrants and not native born; the figure is 50% if one takes just the last ten years. In 2016, all six American winners in science were immigrants. Also, as many as 43% of Fortune 500 companies in America were established by immigrants.
To make matters worse for science in America, Washington Post recently reported that the government plans to forbid the prestigious Centre for Disease Control from using the phrase “evidence-based” or “science-based”. Instead, the administration recommended something as pre-Galileo as “… recommendations in Science in consideration with community standards and wishes.” No evidence, no experiment, no proof!
Should this policy become active, would American scientists have to cede ground and acknowledge the earth is flat to those who “wish” to believe it is? If this blight hits India astrology, that meets “community standards”, might replace astrophysics.
By – Dipankar Gupta in Times of India
Image and Editorial Courtesy: Times of India