In the summer of 1918, as tuberculosis, bubonic plague and a flu pandemic threatened America’s newly crowded cities, the chemist Charles Holmes Herty took a walk through New York City with his colleague J.R. Bailey. Herty posed a question: Suppose Bailey discovered an exceptionally powerful medicine. What institution would allow him to take his breakthrough from lab experiment to widespread cure?
Bailey replied, “I don’t know.”
That alarming answer moved Herty to propose a visionary solution — an institution that would encourage research and development throughout the country. It would find its value, Herty said, “in the stimulus which it gives” to research, thought and discovery by practitioners in the field.
Nearly a century later, that vision stands as the National Institutes of Health. Its record, from deciphering and mapping the human genome to finding the source of AIDS, leaves no doubt about the NIH’s ability to stimulate innovation.
Today, the shame of our cities isn’t bubonic plague; it’s ignorance. In our urban areas, only one child in five is proficient in reading. On international tests, we rank behind the Czech Republic and Latvia; our high school graduation rate barely makes the top 20 worldwide. As columnist David Brooks has noted, educational progress has been so slow that “America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited.” Under-education may not end lives the way infectious diseases do, but it just as surely wastes them. For all the hard work of our good teachers, our system is failing to keep pace with the demands of a new century.