China On the Rise

The Atlantic has a typically long article about China’s construction of an enormous radio telescope:


Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle [recently destroyed], the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

[It’s] the world’s most sensitive telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter”. After the dish is calibrated, it will start scanning large sections of the sky. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

If that isn’t enough, they’re planning to put a radio observatory on the dark side of the Moon, where there is even less interference from terrestrial radio waves.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Chinese have a “rail-linked urban megastructure” that required the country to pour “more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century” The country “has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea”. The author of the article marvels at “smooth, spaceship-white” trains “whooshing by . . . at almost 200 miles an hour”.

China built the world’s fastest supercomputer, has spent heavily on medical research and planted a “great green wall” of forests in its northwest as a last-ditch effort to halt the Gobi Desert’s spread. Now China is bringing its immense resources to bear on the fundamental sciences. The country plans to build an atom smasher that will conjure thousands of “god particles” out of the ether, in the same time it took CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to strain out a handful. It is also eyeing Mars. In the technopoetic idiom of the 21st century, nothing would symbolize China’s rise like a high-definition shot of a Chinese astronaut setting foot on the red planet. Nothing except, perhaps, first contact.

China’s gross domestic product is still only about 2/3 of America’s, but they’ll probably spend more on research and development than we do in the coming decade.

When we saw the Soviet Union as our competition in the 50s and 60s, we got busy. The Soviet Union no longer exists.

Today, there are more than 100 cities in China with populations over one million. China is making its presence known.


Biden’s Questions for His Top Science Adviser

Joe Biden plans to make the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy a Cabinet-level position for the first time. Last week, he sent a letter to Eric Lander, the geneticist who will hold that position, asking how the United States should address scientific and technological issues in the coming decades. I’m sure the president-elect didn’t write every word, but he put his name on it:

In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authored a letter to his science advisor, Dr. Vannevar Bush, posing the question of how science and technology could best be applied to benefit the nation’s health, economic prosperity, and national security in the decades that would follow the Second World War. Dr. Bush’s response came in the form of a report, titled Science—the Endless Frontier, that would form the basis of the National Science Foundation and set the course of scientific discovery in America for the next 75 years.

Those years have brought about some of the most consequential scientific advancements in human history with America leading the way. But three quarters of a century later, the contours of our lives have changed. . . . And the nature of discovery itself has changed by leaps and bounds—reaching celestial heights, and microscopic complexities, that were unimaginable not so long ago.

For this reason, I believe it is essential that we refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years, so that our children and grandchildren may inhabit a healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world. This effort will require us to bring together our brightest minds across academia, medicine, industry, and government—breaking down the barriers that too often limit our vision and our progress, and prioritizing the needs, interests, fears, and aspirations of the American people.

President Roosevelt asked Dr. Bush to consider four specific questions. Today, I am tasking you and your colleagues with five. My hope is that you, working broadly and transparently with the diverse scientific leadership of American society and engaging the broader American public, will make recommendations to our administration on the general strategies, specific actions, and new structures that the federal government should adopt to ensure that our nation can continue to harness the full power of science and technology on behalf of the American people.

1. What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible—or what ought to be possible— to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?

Even as we work urgently to overcome the coronavirus pandemic, we must learn from this moment by grappling with the challenges, inequities, and opportunities we’ve seen in order to better prepare for the future. How can we dramatically improve our ability to rapidly address threats from pathogens, including emerging pandemics, potential bioweapons, and antibiotic resistance? How can we dramatically speed our ability to develop and conduct clinical trials of therapies for other types of diseases like cancer? How can we enable the rapid sharing, with patient consent, of health information to build a smarter and more effective healthcare system? . . .

2. How can breakthroughs in science and technology create powerful new solutions to address climate change . . .?

Climate change represents an existential threat that requires bold and urgent action. But at the same time, the necessity of solving it also presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to make groundbreaking investments in our infrastructure, enhance America’s resilience, promote environmental justice, and create new cutting-edge industries and millions of good-paying jobs that will advance American leadership for generations to come.

Achieving our commitment of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will require deploying existing, cost-effective clean energy technologies manufactured in America; drawing on innovative solutions to capture and store carbon; and spurring American technological ingenuity to develop new zerocarbon technologies that can reshape the marketplace. . . .

The United States has a long, successful, and bipartisan history of using federal research, purchasing, and policies to help jumpstart critical industries—including, for example, when we pioneered and led the semiconductor industry. How can we refresh that model to deliver a healthier, safer, more prosperous, and sustainable future for our children, while preserving our natural environment for future generations?

3. How can the United States ensure that it is the world leader in the technologies and industries of the future that will be critical to our economic prosperity and national security, especially in competition with China?

. . . New technologies are emerging in increasingly rapid cycles that promise to transform our lives. Each arrives with a distinct set of promises and challenges—and each carries the capacity to dramatically impact job creation, equity, and national security. Other countries—especially China—are making unprecedented investments and doing everything in their power to promote the growth of new industries and eclipse America’s scientific and technological leadership. . . .

What is the right level of national investment, and what are the pillars of a national strategy that will rapidly propel both research and development of critical technologies? What structures, infrastructures, and policies are needed to accelerate the path from research laboratories to development projects to the marketplace? How can we strengthen and expand the connections between academia, industry, and government . . .? And, importantly, how do we ensure that technological advances create rather than diminish high-quality jobs?

4. How can we guarantee that the fruits of science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans?

The benefits of science and technology remain unevenly distributed across racial, gender, economic, and geographic lines. How can we ensure that Americans of all backgrounds are drawn into both the creation and the rewards of science and technology? How can we ensure that science and technology hubs flourish in every part of the country, driving economic development in every American hometown? How can we ensure that advances in medical science benefit the health of all Americans, including substantially reducing racial and socioeconomic health disparities?

5. How can we ensure the long-term health of science and technology in our nation?

Science and technology have flourished in the United States because of a rich ecosystem of people, policies, and institutions. This ecosystem must be nurtured and refreshed . . . How can we protect scientific integrity within government—and make government a premier destination for scientists and technologists to work? . . . How can we ensure the United States will remain a magnet for the best and brightest minds throughout the world?

I believe that the answers to these questions will be instrumental in helping our nation embark on a new path in the years ahead—a path of dignity and respect, of prosperity and security, of progress and common purpose. They are big questions, to be sure, but not as big as America’s capacity to address them. I look forward to receiving your recommendations—and to working with you, your team, and the broader scientific community to turn them into solutions that ease everyday burdens for the American people, spark new jobs and opportunities, and restore American leadership on the world stage.