U.S. Falling Behind in Science

The current generation of Americans may live through two extremes: The rise of the United States to world dominance as the planet's only superpower, and the decline of the same country to mediocrity as other nations wise up to what it takes to guarantee a prosperous and strong future.

That may sound alarmist, but the evidence is there.

The country has largely ignored the exporting of blue collar jobs with the expectation that our national calling was to a higher level. Let the rest of the world do the menial tasks. We'll build the supercomputers and the high performance aircraft and all the other high-tech gizmos that only a country such as ours can produce.

But while we've been resting on our laurels, much of the world has been turning a corner. And guess what? We don't have the high road all to ourselves anymore.

"The trends are real," says David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology and a Nobel prize winner in medicine for his research on viruses.

In a commentary published recently in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore warned that our standard of living, and our future as a world power, is in jeopardy because we are locked in a "fortress" mentality and we aren't making the investments that are so essential to our future.

What's Needed

What are those investments? It shouldn't come as any surprise to see that Baltimore, a scientist, sees our salvation in science. More money, better educational systems and a change in attitude away from the "anti-intellectualism and the cult of the sound bite" would help head off what he sees as an economic and national disaster in the years ahead.

OK, so there's nothing new about a scientist asking for more money and claiming that he and others of his persuasion can lead us out of the wilderness. But what does science have to do with economic prosperity?

Just this. Science is the driver behind our economy. It always has been, and that's true now more than ever.

"Investments in science and technology have driven economic growth and improvements in the quality of life in America for the last 200 years," Neal Lane testified before Congress four years ago. Lane, then science adviser to President Clinton, went on to say that science had "generated new knowledge and new industries, created new jobs, ensured economic and national security, reduced pollution and increased energy efficiency, provided better and safer transportation, improved medical care, and increased living standards for the American people."

Science is what gives a country the edge. Without scientific progress, there are no new technologies to challenge our people, so there will be no new factories to produce new gizmos, and the best and the brightest will look for work elsewhere.

And according to Baltimore, that's already happening.

"We no longer have a lock on technology," he writes. "Europe is increasingly competitive, and Asia has the potential to blow us out of the water."

Until fairly recently, the most promising students in countries like Japan and India came to this country to study, and they learned their skills here as they contributed to research that helped fuel our economy. But those countries are now putting "huge sums into modernizing their science infrastructure and universities," Baltimore says.

The result is companies like Intel and Cisco are opening plants in those countries to take advantage of cheap labor. Not on the assembly line. In the labs, where breakthroughs are needed to stay ahead of the competition. That used to be our turf.

Dire Consequences

So more and more promising students are staying in their own countries, and fewer of those who do study here remain in the States, Baltimore says. He fears that will lead to a "cascade" of events as America cuts salaries to compete, resulting in a lower standard of living, and less and less money to spend on research, the only way to avoid this abyss.

Baltimore and Lane and many others see an increase in investment in science education as critical if we are to maintain our ability to compete in an increasingly brutal global market. But there's more to it than that. Part of the problem is us.

Most scientists depicted in movies are mad. Students who excel in science and engineering are considered nerds. Putting them down is hip.

Many have lost faith in science because we are told one thing today, and the opposite tomorrow. They don't realize that science is a work in progress, subject to change at any time as new information comes in.

Years ago, one scholar told me that every child is born a scientist, curious, eager to learn, anxious to experiment. And then we get them into our schools and "beat that out of them," as he put it, by subjecting them to boring stuff.

But science is anything but boring. There's no greater adventure than to discover something no one else knows. Every day can begin with a blank slate. Today we'll know something we didn't know yesterday.

What can be more exciting than that?

But of course, not everybody needs to be a scientist. We need poets, too, and business executives and political leaders who can look to the future.

We won't get there, though, without a sound economy that can compete in the global marketplace. And we won't have that without scientists and engineers.

And that won't be hip.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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