President Joe Biden has done something no other president has done: He has elevated his chief science adviser to Cabinet-level rank.
This is one of many ways in which the United States is an exceptional nation: Most other advanced countries already have a cabinet position for science. So do many not-so-advanced ones.
Biden’s decision may give science adviser-designate Eric Lander, a geneticist by training, cabinet-rank but that lasts only so long as Biden wants such a ranking. It does not create a formal Secretary of Science.
That prompts us to ask: Why don’t we have one? If Mongolia and Somaliland, two of the smaller countries on the list, have Cabinet ministers for science, why don’t we?
After all, Biden makes a pretty compelling argument: “We’re on the cusp of some of the most remarkable breakthroughs that will fundamentally change our way of life,” he said in announcing his decision. “We can make more progress in the next 10 years than we made in the last 50 years. But we also face some of the most dire crises in generations, where science is critical to whether we meet this moment of peril with the promise we know that is in reach.”
As with many things, some context is in order. Some countries with science ministers combine that position with something else — so Canada has a Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, which sounds a lot like our Secretary of Commerce, just tarted up to sound fancier, and Japan has an even more all-purpose Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which sounds a lot like Minister of Everything That Doesn’t Fit Somewhere Else. Still, at least 15 countries have a science minister that seems pretty uniquely focused on science, usually in the form of a Minister of Science and Technology. Among the countries with such a position are those now challenging the U.S. for economic dominance — China and India. Perhaps we should have done this sooner?
Interestingly, some states have state-level secretaries for science in some fashion, although not necessarily the ones you’d think. Oklahoma has had a state Secretary of Science and Technology since 1999. The secretary’s official mandate is to make sure that research done at Oklahoma’s state-supported universities coordinates with the state’s business community — in other words, the office is there to commercialize research. Perhaps it’s notable that California, the home of Silicon Valley, does not have such a position but Oklahoma, a state in the heartland not readily identified with high technology, does. Oklahoma needs to build a new economy a lot more than California does.
Virginia does not have a Secretary of Science, but it does have the Center for Innovative Technology, which was created in 1985 to do the same thing Oklahoma wants done — commercialize research. The CIT has never been particularly well understood and how much it’s been responsible for Northern Virginia’s growth as a technology capital would make for an interesting debate. Still, then-Gov. Charles Robb probably deserves some credit in hindsight for seeing the need to turn research into jobs — back before there was even such a thing as the worldwide web. Decades later, Virginia is still pursuing the same goal. A year ago, at the behest of Gov. Ralph Northam, the General Assembly created the Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority to “to oversee and support research, development, and commercialization, as well as related investment and seed-stage funding, in the Commonwealth.” That’s a lot of words, and isn’t as sexy as a state Secretary of Science, but effectively attempts to do the same thing. That raises a question for our multiple candidates for governor: Does Virginia need a Secretary of Science? Northern Virginia, which seems to have no trouble creating technology jobs, might give a different answer to that question than, say, Southside or Southwest Virginia.
There’s another Cabinet position which Biden hasn’t created, but which most other countries seem to have — a cabinet department devoted to the arts. Peter Marks, the theater critic for The Washington Post, recently made the case for such a position this way:
“When a president calls a meeting of the Cabinet, most vital sectors of the economy — from soybean farmers to auto manufacturers — have an appointed government representative in the room, a secretary of agriculture or transportation, to speak for them. You know what doesn’t get a seat at the table, and never has? The arts. And in this crisis moment, when a pandemic threatens ruination for museums, theaters, concert halls, opera houses, dance studios, cineplexes and amusement parks — and the 5.1 million arts workers who staff them — the time has come to rectify this glaring oversight.
Now, more than ever, we need a secretary of arts and culture.”
Don’t hold your breath. The United States has always taken a more churlish view of the arts than other nations, where culture is often regarded in national security terms. When French President Emmanuel Macron announced a relief package for the arts last year, he framed it in terms of the need to “defend European creativity” against competitors from the United States and China. We’re a lot less likely to get an American Secretary of Culture than we are a Secretary of Science. Indeed, some might argue that other countries need a Minister of Culture to defend themselves against the hegemony of American culture while we don’t need one to defend ours. (Canada famously has a “Canadian content rule” that requires a certain percentage of songs on the radio be by Canadian musicians to keep their airwaves from being swamped by American pop stars; that’s also created a homegrown music industry there that might otherwise not exist.) Hollywood doesn’t need anyone to speak for it in the halls of power but the arts, unlike, say, the agriculture or the auto industry, is very much divided between its for-profit side and its nonprofit side. The musicians playing at the Berglund Center or other venues (in pre-pandemic times) are very much on the former side of the ledger; but virtually all the other arts — from ballet to theater — are on the latter side. Beyonce doesn’t need a government office to speak for her; but what about all those arts nonprofits? Keep this in mind: The U.S. doesn’t have a Minister of Culture and neither does Virginia, but Roanoke does in a way — in the form of an arts and culture coordinator. Should other communities follow Roanoke’s example?