U.S. Falling Behind in Science

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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