The latest issue of Time magazine has a fascinating article about The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Recall that this is where Albert Einstein did his work on relativity.
The institute offers researchers a place to work unhindered by the pesky objectives required by traditional research centers or obligations to students at universities. If research were measured on a spectrum from the practical (like making a laptop slimmer) to the theoretical (like studying the way matter moves in space), the institute is as “close to the frontier as possible,” says its new director, Dutch mathematical physicist Robert Dijkgraaf. The atmosphere, free from practical constraints and flush with great minds — 33 Nobel laureates have stopped through along with more than two-thirds of the winners of the Fields Medal, math’s top honor since 1936 — was designed to create ideal conditions for discovery. And in many cases over the years, it has. In its prolific early history, physicists Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee discovered that nature is not symmetrical, mathematician John von Neumann created the prototype on which future computers were built, and historian and diplomat George Kennan developed the intellectual foundations of realist foreign policy.
But while the institute’s future is mostly assured by a healthy $650 million endowment, elsewhere in the U.S. the kind of work it fosters is staring down the barrel of a rough future as the government spends less than in past decades on research as a share of GDP. Many countries in Europe and Asia, meanwhile, are heading the other direction. The Chinese government — coming from far behind — has been pouring money into research and development at such a clip that according to one estimate from Battelle, a non-profit technology-development group, its spending will surpass America’s in just 10 years. Chinese universities, which hardly awarded doctorates years ago, are now, albeit barely, competing with the U.S. for students. The U.S. is already falling in some measures of innovation: in the decade from 2000 to 2010, the U.S. share of science and engineering academic citations dropped precipitously, putting it in close competition with the E.U.
If the institute was once a symbol of all that was powerful about American innovation, now it is emblematic of some of the toughest questions facing the U.S. in its fight to stay competitive. Demands for quick results are everywhere, from corporations focused on quarterly reports to universities increasingly obsessed with private-enterprise partnerships that can spawn start-ups and burnish their image with students and donors. “I feel the institute is a little bit the canary in the mine,” says Dijkgraaf, 53, who took his post last summer. “It is not clear a place like this can exist. Society is moving toward short-term thinking, toward direct applications. We are swimming against the stream.” In other words, pursuing questions for which the value of the answers isn’t obvious may be a luxury that America can no longer afford — or at least appreciate the importance of.