Thursday, September 25, 2008

Science in the United States -- Problems in the House!

Norman R. Augustine has written an editorial for the current issue of Science magazine (Science 19 September 2008: Vol. 321. no. 5896, p. 1605). It paints a dim picture of the situation:
The United States ranks 16th and 20th among nations in college and high-school graduation rates, respectively; 60th in the proportion of college graduates receiving natural science and engineering degrees; and 23rd in the fraction of GDP devoted to publicly funded nondefense research. The number of U.S. citizens receiving Ph.D.s in engineering and the physical sciences has dropped by 22% in a decade. U.S. high-school students rank near the bottom in math and science.
Comment: The situation is perhaps not so bad as these numbers might imply. The United States has been successful in attracting scientists and engineers trained elsewhere. The large number of Americans entering higher education accounts for part of the lower completion rates and part of the lower ration of science and engineering students to all students. Still, these figures are disturbing in themselves and bode ill for the future of the economy. JAD

Augustine also writes:
Of the 535 members of the U.S. Congress, only 8 list themselves as engineers or scientists. Of the 9 senior leaders in China, 8 hold such degrees. How can America's political leaders be expected to make sound policy decisions in a world of increasingly complex science and technology if the most qualified individuals in those fields remain absent from the field of play?
Comment: Given how few scientists and engineers are actually elected to Congress, it is important that the members get good scientific and technological advice. The efforts of the professional societies to place fellows on Congressional staffs are very important. But perhaps it is time to lobby for the reinstitution of an advisory body such as the Office of Technology Assessment that was abolished by a Republican controlled Congress in 1995, or the Office of Science and Technology Policy that provides advice to the President. If the Congress is to provide a check and balance to the Executive Branch, it too needs an advisory body to do so well in areas of science and technology. JAD

The failure of the United States to offer equal educational opportunities to minorities may be part of the reason we will be facing a problem in scientific and technological manpower in the not too distant future, and consequent economic problems.

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