Before his death in 1992, Isaac Asimov had written some 500 books of science or science fiction.
With a Ph.D. in chemistry, his thoughts on the state of American scientific research carried weight. Asimov's opinion of our national investment in science was sobering, and his views have a renewed profile with the recent release of a vintage TV interview on DVD.
As part of journalist Bill Moyers' "World of Ideas" series that debuted on public television in 1988, Asimov sat for an interview that touched on a number of topics, including Asimov's perspective on research spending.
The interview is back in circulation in "Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas: Writers," a four-DVD set recently released by Acorn Media.
Although Asimov was speaking nearly a quarter of a century ago, his assessment of America's prospects for continued dominance in scientific research was prescient.
Asimov worried that without sustained investment, the gap between America and its rivals in scientific advances would narrow.
That's exactly what's happened since Asimov's passing. As a newly invigorated China pours money into scientific research, cutbacks at the federal and state level mean dwindling research dollars here in the United States.
In light of recent events, Asimov's warning against U.S. complacency now rings truer than ever.
"I suppose the most damaging statement that the U.S. has ever been subjected to is the phrase ‘Yankee know-how,' " Asimov told Moyers. "You get the feeling, somehow, that Americans, just by the fact that they're Americans, are somehow smarter and more ingenious than other people, which is really not so. It causes you to rest on your laurels."
Ingenuity, Asimov countered, is not a national birthright. Asimov applauded political freedom and free enterprise as engines of American innovation, but he quickly added that this alone isn't enough to succeed in science unless we spend money on education and research.
That's a timely message as Louisiana cuts funding for higher education, and lab space at facilities such as LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center goes unused because of budget cuts.
Asimov probably wouldn't be surprised, but he surely would be disappointed.