Science  19 Sep 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5896, pp. 1605
DOI: 10.1126/science.1162924

More than half of the increase in U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) has been attributed to advancements in science, technology, and innovation. The solution to many of America's, and the world's, greatest challenges depends on advancements in science and technology—including providing energy, preserving the environment, supplying food and water, ensuring physical security, providing health care, and improving the global standard of living.

But there are a few problems. 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.

Three years ago, a U.S. National Academies committee recommended (in the report The Gathering Storm) doubling federal investment in basic research in math, the physical sciences, and engineering while, at a minimum, protecting the health sciences against inflation (the cost of which, in math, the physical sciences, and engineering, equals the amount by which the nation's expenditure on health care increases every 7 weeks).


Much has been accomplished since The Gathering Storm was published. A new research university was established, with an opening endowment equal to what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology amassed after 142 years. Next year, over 200,000 students will study abroad, mostly pursing science or engineering degrees, often under government scholarships. Government investment in R&D is set to increase by 25%. An initiative is under way to create a global nanotechnology hub. An additional $10 billion dollars is being devoted to K-12 education, with emphasis on math and science. And a $3 billion dollar add-on to the nation's research budget is in process. Of course, these actions are taking place in Saudi Arabia, China, the United Kingdom, India, Brazil, and Russia, respectively.

What about in the United States? After the U.S. Congress authorized funding to implement many of The Gathering Storm's recommendations, the needed funds were lost in an impasse over the Appropriations Act. As a result, one leading national laboratory began to impose mandatory 2-day-per-month “unpaid holidays” on its science staff, several laboratories began laying off researchers, the U.S. portion of the international program to develop plentiful energy through nuclear fusion was reduced to “survival mode,” America's firms continued to spend three times more on litigation than research, and many young would-be scientists presumably began reconsidering their careers. Meanwhile, a $3 trillion dollar federal budget was approved and a $152 billion dollar economic stimulus package (much of which is likely to be spent on products made in China) whisked through Congress along with 12,000 earmarks that found their way into the Appropriations Act.

Where were the voices of those who understand the dire consequences of these actions? During the past two presidential campaigns, efforts were made by the science and engineering communities to engage candidates in a “user-friendly” science policy conversation not designed to be a debate (questions were to be provided in advance and “contentious” issues were off limits). Every candidate declined to participate. Imagine this happening to invitations from the American Bar Association or American Medical Association! Ironically, there are five times as many people in the United States with a degree in science or engineering currently working in those fields than there are either practicing lawyers or medical doctors. The “scilence” is deafening.

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? If current trends persist, the United States may well be on its way to becoming “America, the land of the free and the home of the unemployed.”


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