Prioritizing Science Education, the Latest Report

The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), comprised of members from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine suggests some tactics to advance the lagging science prowess of the U.S. Their recommendations are published here in PDF or paperback form, titled "Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing American for a Brighter Economic Future."

The National Academies press release for the study lists some of the actions they propose to stem what the committee views as decreased interest and competance in the U.S. for science and math. There are clear indicators of the nation's flagging abilities, they say:

  • "For the cost of one chemist or one engineer in the United States, a company can hire about five chemists in China or 11 engineers in India".
  • "Last year chemical companies shuttered 70 facilities in the United States and have tagged 40 more for closure. Of 120 chemical plants being built around the world with price tags of $1 billion or more, one is in the United States and 50 are in China".
  • "U.S. 12th-graders recently performed below the international average for 21 countries on a test of general knowledge in mathematics and science".
  • "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 was 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".
  • "In 2001 U.S. industry spent more on tort litigation than on research and development".

The press release summarizes the recommendations of the report:

  • "[T]he creation of a merit-based scholarship program to attract 10,000 exceptional students to math and science teaching careers each year. Four-year scholarships, worth up to $20,000 annually, should be designed to help some of the nation's top students obtain bachelor's degrees in physical or life sciences, engineering, or mathematics -- with concurrent certification as K-12 math and science teachers. After graduation, they would be required to work for at least five years in public schools..."
  • "Policy-makers should increase the national investment in basic research by 10 percent each year over the next seven years."
  • "Each year, policy-makers should provide 25,000 new, competitive four-year undergraduate scholarships and 5,000 new graduate fellowships to U.S. citizens enrolled in physical science, life science, engineering, and mathematics programs at U.S. colleges and universities."
  • "Policy-makers should provide a one-year automatic visa extension that allows international students to remain in the United States to seek employment if they have received doctorates or the equivalent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or other fields of national need from qualified U.S. institutions."
  • "Ensure that the United States is the premier place in the world for innovation. This can be accomplished by actions such as modernizing the U.S. patent system, realigning tax policies to encourage innovation, and ensuring affordable broadband Internet access, the report says."

The report outlines clear steps for improvement. Some are controversial, for instance there are international development issues to promoting a policy of siphoning off the most promising students from foreign countries, nevertheless, for the most part these seem straight forward. However, importantly, there is no sense of buy-in from many politicians. Thomas Friedman's New York Times today (accessible to subscribers), "Keeping Us in the Race", criticizes the administration's priorities:

"This is where President Bush should have focused his second term, instead of squandering it on a silly, ideological jag called Social Security privatization."

Friedman's admonishment seems mild and understated relative to the ballooning expenses of the administration's charge into the Iraq war and bullheaded insistence on tax cuts as well as its relentless rhetorical focus on terrorism and values. No doubt others have harsher criticism. In addition, the current guised creationist chatter and distracting court proceedings for teaching "alternative" theories of man's existence on earth do nothing to bolster public confidence in science. If anything a large swath of the population may be enboldened to eschew the challenges of learning science.

While it's clear that the administrations focus is not on education it's not clear what the public sees as administrations priorities. Purusing a series of polls over the last couple of years shows that while "economy and jobs" constantly rate as a worry to pollees, education generally is one of the last priorities, while gas and energy, terrorism, healthcare, Iraq and periodic crisises such as Hurricane Katrina are always prominent concerns. Interestingly "jobs" and "education" are always broken out as two separate priorities in the polls, which skews the fact that they are dependent upon each other. "Jobs" usually rates high and "education" rates low.

The agenda not only faces challenges from the administration and public perception, it doesn't seem that science holds the allure for students that it once did. While science and math are interesting pursuits, many undergraduates opt for easier and more lucrative paths in economics or business. Though it's a cynical view on these important goals, their choices aren't lazy they're sage. Just as it's savvy for businesses to off-shore technology and manufacturing, in kind, it's smart for undergraduates to recognize the often limited job opportunities and financial incentives to majoring in science as opposed to business. In a world where any young cool performer or slob with some Karaoke practice and a song can have a shot at launching a lucrative record career from "American Idol", wealth is king. There's no nobility to being a poor researcher renting the smallest house on the block in order to fund serial post-doc positions.

While science education and technical prowess is clearly important to scientists and ultimately to our nation's ability to compete, there seem to be more pressing priorities for the public, politicians, and students. We admit to being disheartened, but without serious political will we don't seem poised for any immediate attention to these goals. All indications are that the political priorities, both practical- budgetary and ideological, at the federal and state levels are attuned to other goals that either compete with or trump attention to science education and international competitiveness.

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