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NIH and English as the Language of Science

Last October, Nobel laureate and biochemist Arthur Kornberg passed away, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading his book For the Love of Enzymes.

While there’s a lot in the book to talk about, for this post I’m focusing on just one passing reference that Kornberg makes (pages 129-134) on NIH and the use of English as the language of science. In it, Kornberg is describing the factors that made NIH a huge success, including 7 major policy decisions, the first four of which I think are most profound:
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  1. To expend most of the budget extramurally in grants to universities and private research organizations.
  2. To award these grants to individuals, young and old, rather than to departments or institutions.
  3. To make these awards purely on scientific merit as judged by a panel of peers drawn from outside government.
  4. To be unswayed by political or geographical considerations, national boundaries included.

The first three are what made American science so productive – they freed the creative energies of individual investigators, enabling scientific progress to begin making leaps and bounds in ways that the old system (direction of research determined by the senior administration) could never have accomplished.

But it’s the fourth one that caught my attention. In elaborating, Kornberg continues:

An aspect of the NIH grants program which deserves more notice is the award of grants for support of research outside the United States. […] The advantages of this international spirit in promoting science proved to be far greater than we expected. In addition, we had not anticipated the enormous boost this altruism gave to medical sciences and technology in the United States. By rejuvenating European and Japanese scientists and laboratories, we were able to enlist the vast reservoirs of talent on all three continents. […]

As a consequence of the rebirth of science centers in Europe and Japan, a tide of gifted students and senior investigators flowed into the United States. We welcomed them, and many remained to enrich American universities, research institutes, and industries. At the NIH laboratories in Bethesda alone, many thousands of foreign scientists (over 3,000 from Japan alone) received postdoctoral training and became loyal alumni upon returning to their native countries. These developments also helped to create markets for American technology and pharmaceutical products and to establish English as the international language of science.

This surprised me, although I had never given this much thought. I also am far, far too young to appreciate this era of biomedical research.

It also probably was the impetus for the view commonly held today, that science is a unifying and globalizing enterprise. International cooperation has an exceedingly strong example in the preoccupation of science, and this would not have been possible if not for policies such as these that did away with nationalism in Science.

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