‘Just watch America fade’: Neil deGrasse Tyson warns of waning influence without scientific innovation

Michael Walsh
Reporter

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took great pride in growing up in a country driven by scientific innovation but fears recent antiscience sentiments could result in the U.S. lagging behind.

Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said the moment people debate whether established scientific facts are real marks the beginning of the end for an informed democracy.

In an interview with Yahoo News and Finance Anchor Bianna Golodryga Wednesday afternoon, Tyson said he is less concerned with President Trump’s scientific illiteracy than the fact that the American people voted for him. The science educator said Trump’s election tells us troubling things about the U.S. education system and the country’s prospects for leading the world in scientific innovation in the 21st century.

“If you elect someone who is college educated and says something objectively false scientifically, and you know they’re making these statements, yet you voted for them anyway, and you know they are important issues… That tells me that the K-12 educational experience in America is missing something,” Tyson told Golodryga. “It’s missing an entire course on what science is and why and how it works.”

Tyson said that the United States’ decision to fund certain areas of scientific research rather than others — defense-related versus medical, for example — can be a partisan issue, but that objective truths are not.

The National Academy of Sciences was founded in 1863 to provide independent, objective advice to the nation on science and technology issues. Tyson said the United States will suffer in terms of health, wealth and security if the president and Congress choose to ignore the academy’s reports. Competition in these fields, Tyson said, requires intelligent investments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, academic disciplines commonly referred to as STEM.

“If you don’t have that, just watch America fade. We’re already kind of fading. Just watch it continue to fade and just disappear,” he said. “It’s not a cliff, so you won’t see us stepping over the edge. No, no. It’s just that we’ll become less relevant. The world starts making decisions without us, when we used to lead those very same decisions.”

He said large-scale investments in STEM fields would result in the United States leading the world in every way that innovation matters. In short, he said, the U.S. would create new jobs that no one could outsource because Americans would be the only people trained to perform them.

But the Trump administration has been characterized by a new protectionism, perhaps best represented by Trump’s desire to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tyson said protectionism, the economic policy of shielding your industries from foreign competition, is necessary only when one’s country is merely producing the same products as everyone else.

“Of course you want to protect if it’s the same thing everybody else is making, but when you’re a mile ahead of everybody, there’s nothing to protect because no one else knows how to make it,” Tyson said.

From the moon landing to the personal computer, the United States has traditionally been a world leader in science and innovation. But Tyson thinks the United States is “coasting right now” and said it’s easy for Americans to take the nation’s scientific success for granted without recognizing the previous generation’s investment in that infrastructure. He said the Internet was created thanks to wise investments from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“Enlightened politicians who were not standing in denial [saying], ‘Oh, this mysterious Wi-Fi. Is it real or is it sorcery?’ That kind of conversation was not unfolding around the development of this technology,” Tyson said.

Tyson said there are also pockets of antiscience in other countries, such as Australia, but that the important question is whether or not antiscience sentiments have risen to positions of power and influence.

“If the electorate knows and understands what science is and they recognize the importance of science in the future of the country, they will not put into office someone who is scientifically illiterate. That’s the point,” Tyson said. “So that educational path is an inoculation against underinformed leadership with regard to funding, agencies, investments, all of that frontier.”

He said Trump, as a businessman, should be able to understand the importance of science if he thinks of it as research and development (R&D) for “a corporation called the United States of America.” Without supporting R&D, he continued, Trump would be bankrupting the future of the country.

Throughout the conversation, Tyson kept most of his focus on the importance of educating the American people rather than bashing the Trump administration.

When asked about EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who rejects mainstream climate science, Tyson said, “You should not be making decisions if you are underinformed, and it’s even worse if you are underinformed and don’t think you’re underinformed. People need to know when they don’t know something and get advice.”

He also declined the opportunity to criticize Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos personally, keeping the focus on his chief concern — the importance of a solid education in the sciences.

“If you put into a science curriculum something that is not science, then you are knocking out at the kneecaps the scientific enlightenment of the students you are trying to teach,” Tyson said. “And that will bankrupt the future of your country because of what role science needs to play in our economy going forward. That is the consequence of not understanding what science is.”

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