13 October 2005

Will U.S. Cede Science Leadership?

image of Sputnik from NASA (http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/database/MasterCatalog?sc=1957-001B)Where is Sputnik when we need it?

America has built its prosperity and power on science, technology, and entrepreneurship. As leadership in these fields passes to other countries, what future can Americans expect?

Astonishingly, the United States is on course to fall behind in science and technology. Other nations will take over the position of scientific leadership occupied by the U.S. for the last 50 years.

This is not news to anyone in the U.S. scientific or science education communities. They understand the implications of such facts as:
  • In 1999 only 41 percent of U.S. eighth-graders had a math teacher who had majored in mathematics at the undergraduate or graduate level or studied the subject for teacher certification -- a figure that is considerably lower than the international average of 71 percent.

  • Last year more than 600,000 engineers graduated from institutions of higher education in China. In India, the figure was 350,000. In America, it was about 70,000.
These are among the discouraging (to Americans, or at least they should be) facts mentioned in a recent report from The National Academies. (Press release on the study. Order or download full report here. There is also an article based on the study's findings in the New York Times.)

Anyone who has read my previous posts on science education, President Bush's attitude toward science, or the President's thoughts on the place of "intelligent design" in science classes, can guess that I think science education in America is broken.

Of course, President Bush is entitled to his personal beliefs about how the world works. He should just realize that those beliefs, if allowed to guide science education, are likely to make the U.S. a second-class nation. Science is about what works, not about ideology.

I happen to be of the generation that benefited from the boom in math and science education that followed the launch of Sputnik in 1957 (see "Sputnik Crisis"). America perceived that its science, technology and engineering capabilities were falling behind, and undertook a crash program of innovation in science and math teaching. Since then science and math teaching have again gone down hill.

I don't think erudite reports will shake up national priorities enough to significantly improve science education, especially since the actions recommended by the report would cost about $10 billion a year (only a small fraction of which is for improvements in education). That's money the U.S. does not have, or at least thinks it can't afford, given current priorities.
The federal government is already running a deficit of $300 to $400 billion a year. Such deficits have resulted in a government debt of about $8 trillion ($8 x— 1012) , which continues to grow. The interest on that debt is about $380 billion annually. The occupation of Iraq is currently costing about $6 billion a month in cash outlays (not counting casualties, etc.) (source).
So it is unlikely that Congress will allocate much for better science and math education just based on a National Academies committee's report. It will take a shock. What will be this generation's "Sputnik"?


David Wheat's Science In Action site has articles about science and math in the real world, weird science, science news, unexpected connections, and other cool science stuff. There is an index of the articles by topic here.

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1 comment:

OaklandSpeaks said...

"Astonishingly, the United States is on course to fall behind in science and technology." Some of us are not astonished. But in the next paragraph you acknowledge this.

It has been clear for forty years that too many Americans want to be movie stars, big league athletes, guitar players and rich by many other means. These people do not want to be "geeks."

There was a period that began after World War II and lasted until the revolt of the sixties when America took the "lead" in science because the rest of the scientific world fell to its knees and most of the prominent scientists and mathematicians came to the United States to build our university system.

This period lasted for only about twenty years and we have lived on the intellectual capital of one or two generations ever since.

Those who study this period of history know these facts well and have been alternately lamenting this slow decline and exhorting young people to become scientists and engineers.

President Bush knows these facts well too because he was born in 1948. But he was president of his fraternity at Yale and the scion of a rich family and probably knows nothing at all of higher mathematics and science and what is means to dedicate one's life to them. For Bush, success comes from knowing the right people and not from knowledge of the right things. In fact, he is the chief fundamentalist and know-nothing who is presiding over this American slide into oblivion.

In 1945, Europeans thought that their civilization had committed suicide and so they passed the torch to America and Russia. Russia collapsed in 1989. America is in the process of collapsing.

Is there any way to stop this collapse into massive class differences, mindless electronic diversions and wholesale lottery playing that is euphemistically called the American Dream?