APS News

Inside the Beltway

Science!  Who Needs It?

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

When it comes to math and science, American students get failing grades, and they have for quite some time. It used to be a dirty little secret, and it didn’t seem to matter much. But it’s no longer a secret and it matters a lot now.

Last December, the Program for International Student Assessment released its 2006 math and science test scores for 15-year-olds in countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  Of those 30 richest nations in the world, the United States ranked 17th in science and 23rd in math. 

That should be a wake-up call for every American politician, but judging by the lethargy in Washington, the message hasn’t sunk in. Here’s why it should.

For half a century, the United States reigned supreme economically among all nations. We were the greatest innovators, the most productive manufacturers and always on the cusp of the revolutionary discoveries that drove technology. Our standard of living was the highest, and the expectation that our children would be better off than we were was always a dream fulfilled.

But the rest of the world has caught up, and the American aspiration for a better tomorrow is at risk of becoming nothing more than an illusory pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. The dollar has lost its might, the nation’s debt has skyrocketed, and the balance of trade is so deeply in the red that the break-even line is almost invisible on the economic horizon.

And what is Washington’s response? A lot of rhetoric but precious few dollars and precious few policies that might make a difference! It’s not that policy makers don’t care; it’s that they don’t really understand how the science enterprise works–the need for patient nurturing and patient capital.

It’s a fair guess that most members of Congress and high-level Executive Branch officials have never taken a chemistry or physics course in college. And when they speak of calculus, they mean political calculus, not derivatives and integrals. Their decisions are generally informed by keen political acumen and either fine legal training or a good brain for finance but rarely by any understanding of even rudimentary principles of math and science.

Corn-based ethanol is a good example. It produces more carbon than it saves, as reported in the February 29, 2008 issue of Science, and it generates barely more energy than the non-renewable sources it consumes. Yet lawmakers embrace it as a means of weaning us off imported oil and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Mandating its use demonstrates either appalling ignorance or pure political pandering. In truth it’s probably a combination of the two.

Next November is unlikely to bring us much more scientific enlightenment from the new crop of public servants whom we will elect.  Just consider the May 4th edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Responding to Tim Russert’s question about soaring gasoline prices, Senator Barack Obama asserted that we have all the technology we need to deploy a fleet of plug-in hybrid cars. He seemed to suggest that all we required was an enlightened auto industry to act in the public interest, and our energy future would be secure and the global environment, saved.

Would that it were true! But the reality is that we don’t have affordable, safe batteries with high enough energy density to make plug-in hybrid cars practical for family use right now. And given the schizophrenic way our government officials treat science, plug-in hybrids may be a long time coming.

We do need more home-grown scientists and engineers to compete in the global economy, but we also desperately need a more scientifically literate populace.  Sadly that won’t happen until state and local governments wake up to the problem. And it won’t happen unless teachers’ organizations begin to recognize the size of the crisis and make science a priority.

For now we can only hope that scientists redouble their efforts to reach out to the public and to lawmakers at all levels of government and establish the case for research and education. It won’t be easy, but, hey, the physics caucus in the House of Representatives just increased 50 percent when former Fermilab employee Bill Foster won a special election in Illinois’ 14th congressional district this past March. If we could just get one more Foster to win every month for the next few years, at least in Washington science might get the attention it deserves.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan