Friday, October 14, 2005

Top Advisory Panel Warns of Erosion of U.S. Science

We've written about aspects of this problem before:

Now a Congressionally-chartered panel of the U. S. National Academies is saying very similar things. There's a press release here, and a summary from the New York Times here.

Example problems cited are:

  • 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 addition, an advanced mathematics assessment was administered to students in 15 other countries who were taking or had taken advanced math courses, and to U.S. students who were taking or had taken pre-calculus, calculus, or Advanced Placement calculus. Eleven countries outperformed the United States, and four scored similarly. None scored significantly below the United States.
  • 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.

There are also recommended corrective actions. But one must say in advance, these recommendations seem too predictably of the "throw money at the problem" sort. Yes, the money should be spent. But something much more is needed: a change of basic cultural attitudes. Developing countries like China and India know that their people must value education and commitment to acquiring scientific and technical skills in order to achieve their goals of becoming competitive, productive members of the world economy. They know this can't happen without effort and hard work.

At one time, when the U. S. was still an "underdeveloped country", we had the same attitudes -- as far back as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and as recently as the "space race" with the Soviet Union in the 1960s. How was it that in the 1960s it took only eight years practically from scratch and the decision to put men on the Moon until that was accomplished in 1969, and yet now we can't accomplsh the same thing for maybe thirteen years, until 2018, using basically the same technology we've had for 40 years? Isn't that sort of incredible?

Well, the goal of putting men (and women) back on the Moon probably isn't the right goal now. Other problems, like finding clean but economically viable sources of energy and figuring out how to cope with global warming, are much more pressing. But whatever goals we choose, it's not looking like we'll get there without some fundamental attitude changes. Most notably, we'll need to value more -- and invest much more of our wealth in -- human capital goods such as basic science education and acquisiton of skills. Instead of unproductive consumer goods and services like SUVs and $250-a-pair blue jeans and wedding extravaganzas that cost more than a full year at Harvard. (To say nothing of useless wars in far-off countries that cost upwards of $1 billion a week.) We need better priorities. We can't afford it all.

OK, that rant aside, here are the four concrete proposals of the NAS report:
  • Attract 10,000 top students every year to science and math K-12 teaching careers with 4-year college scholarships.
  • Increase by 10% a year the funding of basic research in physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and information sciences. Support additional research in innovative energy souces. Start a new program of research grants for the most outstanding early-career researchers.
  • Make the U. S. the most attractive setting in the world to study and conduct research, with 25,000 undergraduate scholarships and 5000 graduate fellowships for students enrolled in physical science, life science, engineering, and mathematics programs at U.S. colleges and universities. Change visa requirements to allow foreign recipients of scientific/technical PhD's to remain in the country for a year to find employment.
  • Fix various policies in order to encourage innovation, such as by modernizing the U.S. patent system, realigning tax policies, and ensuring affordable broadband Internet access.

Yeah, that sounds like a good start. There are all kinds of other things which could be done too, with relatively little funding. Some such things are already being done, such as encouraging -- and providing appropriate training for -- scientifically knowledgable creative people to write books and TV/movie screenplays that feature scientific researchers and scientific themes. (In much the same vein as this idea.) Hell, we could support public broadcasting (and cable companies) to produce high-quality educational programming -- instead of trying our best to kill such things.

Or, since this is (supposedly) the 21st century, we could put teams of programmers to work developing educational software that gives young people hands-on experience with scientific computing and computer visualization, and which is as interesting and fun to use as worthless shoot-em-up computer games.

Maybe even bring back the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, so that our legislators stand a chance of getting a clue about all this, instead of their current ignorance. Now there's a truly radical proposal.

Just a few ideas, most of which will probably never happen.

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Anonymous RÃ¥dgivende ingeniør said...

I love Top Advisory Panel Warns of Erosion of U.S. Science. Thanks guys, keep up the good work!

8/24/2009 02:51:00 AM  

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