Scientific innovation and simple courage have defined American success for the past 100 years: the first transatlantic flight, the Apollo missions, and more recently, Microsoft and the personal computer, Google and the search engine, and Apple and elegant interfaces.
But we’ve run out of good ideas in the U.S. of late. We’re neck-deep in debt because the economy has been driven by consumer spending for far too long. Our last asset bubble was largely caused by a lot of people sinking more and more speculative money into real estate, an unproductive “investment” if there ever was one. The U.S. has emerged a weaker force with a more assertive rival in China. And there is widespread talk of “the end of the American era” as we know it, and an almost inevitable sense of decline.
And the terrifying thing is that it sometimes feels like we have run out of ideas here at Yale too. The University has a long tradition of scientific pioneers, but a jaunt to the annual UCS career fair leaves a slim picking for those seeking a path other than financial services and consulting. Alternatives often seem uninspired, a mere question of survival in a bare-knuckles economy where sometimes just getting health insurance coverage is reason enough to take a job.
And it’s tough, for idealism doesn’t pay the bills, hope doesn’t bring about change and stability is hard to come by. And so, large numbers of us Yalies breathe a sigh of relief as investment banks and consultancies start to hire again. We are looking out for ourselves, and finally things seem to be turning around. But we miss the larger picture. Investment banking and consultancies can only exist if there are other industries to provide services for. Financing entrepreneurs cannot be the basis of the economy if there are no entrepreneurs about.
If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot create wealth out of “hot” tech stocks, flipping real estate in the Inland Empire, or fancy financial derivatives — real wealth creation comes from knowledge, and this is where science can be a powerful engine of growth. Where there is real science behind business, there is confidence that there is something to fall back upon.
Does this mean that every Yalie should aspire to be a science major? Of course not. We need English majors, humanities majors and political science majors too. We even need bankers and consultants. But what we cannot have is a belief that the U.S. can survive without some consideration of what type of business is good for the long-term health of the country. The point is that Yalies can help rescue the American economy by not being mindless or self-serving about their career paths and instead ask themselves: Am I entering an industry that is delivering sustainable growth and jobs to the country?
This past summer break, I was living in Santiago de Chile. There was a Starbucks on the ground floor of my apartment building. Each day, I would have my daily morning espresso with a copy of the pink-leafed Diaro Financiero, the Chilean version of the Financial Times. The front page was rife with reports on Chilean salmon farms, but the real insights were to be found in the op-ed pages, where every week, a prominent member of the business community would extol the virtue of science research. Such innovation, the author would claim, was the key in propelling Chile from a quiet, prosperous Latin American nation to a “developed” country.
If that’s what science innovation can do for Chile, imagine what it can do for the American economy. Science is where an open, uncensored and free-thinking society can remain competitive and leave our rivals in the dust. Future generations of Yalies should be at the forefront of that. After all, without us, there would be no thermodynamics, no Gibbs free energy and no Frisbee, and that would be a pity.
Alexander Jares is a senior in Branford College.