U. S. needs to invest in science, engineering

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January 4, 2007

 

While driving to Maryland to visit our daughter and family over Thanksgiving, my wife and I listened to Thomas L. Friedman’s audio book, The World is Flat. It was a fascinating and easy to follow explanation of what is happening in the world of globalization.

Two of the points I learned are that globalization is here to stay and that it is not all bad. We have some adjustments to make in this country, but basically all will work for the better of everyone in the world, Friedman said.          This book inspired this column.

I suspect that everyone over the age of 55 remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing on November 22, 1963 – the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was glued to the TV that mournful Thanksgiving weekend.

            Kennedy was elected by the smallest margin of popular votes up to that time, so he was not a universally acclaimed leader. His death changed that.   What I personally remember about Kennedy was his charismatic style and world view that encompassed the whole world, not just the narrow selfish interests of individuals and our country, which is what seems to prevail today.

            In his inaugural address, Kennedy  challenged us with, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” While in Berlin he said proudly Ich bin ein Berliner, for which there was tumultuous applause.

            He initiated the Peace Corps as a way to help people around the world without politicizing that help. I know many who served in the Peace Corps in thos early days. I even considered joining the Peace Corps myself. The program is still going strong with children of Peace Corps volunteers entering the Corps today.

            One particular challenge that Kennedy faced was in the New Frontier – space. In 1959 before he became president, Russia announced the launching of Sputnik, the first orbital satellite. It wasn’t long after that Your Gagarin was the first person in space.

            President Kennedy gave us a clear vision of where we should go in our space program by declaring boldly that we will not only have satellites in space and our own astronauts, but we will land a man on the moon before the end of the  decade. And so we did.

Today’s Challenge

            hee challenge  we have today has been with us for over thirty years – dependence on oil as our main energy resource. Coupled with that is the dependence on foreign oil.              There is a silent crisis underlying this challenge. That crisis is the decline in interest in science and engineering. The space initiative created many doctoral level scientists and engineers but they are now nearing retirement or have retired. The future of replacement looks bleak.

            The crisis shows up in the declining  test scores and interest in science in elementary and high school. While fourth graders are showing respectable results, these test scores gradually get worse in eighth grade and twelfth grade.

            The numbers of students enrolling in college science and engineering doctoral programs continues to decline from the highest in the world thirty years ago. Many of these positions are being filled by foreign students, but these have diminished since 9/11 because of new rrestrictions imposed by the Department of Homeland Security. As China and India continue to develop their own need for doctoral level scientists and engineers, more and more of these students will stay in their own country.

            It takes fifteen years to develop a child in elementary school into a scientist or engineer at the doctoral level. Fifteen years from now we will be experiencing an acute shortage if we don’t act now.

The 2004 federal budget showed an overall increase in spending, but it reduced the spending for the National Science Foundation. We need to increase substantially that allocation rather than lower it in order to support research and development.

            We need a leader who will be bold and strong in declaring that we will be energy independent within ten years. This means  utilizing what we now have more efficiently and developing energy alternatives. We don’t know what those alternatives will be without scientists and engineers with the knowledge and creative freedom to discover them.This vision includes promoting science and engineering careers from early elementary school onward. It means allocating the dollars to get the job done. it means moving our energy polcies out of secrecy and into the open.

            Who will lead us? When someone does lead, will we follow?

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