"We can do this." With those four words in a speech before the National Academies of Science last Monday, April 27th, President Barack Obama launched the United States on its greatest intellectual and scientific mission since the race to the moon. But today the target is broader and of much greater significance to our national well-being.
The President clearly sees the peril of an America that has been gradually losing the scientific and technological leadership it has enjoyed for the past half-century. The danger comes from past underfunding of scientific research, a devaluation of science in American culture, as well as intensifying global competition in the high-tech marketplace.
His solution: better STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and more money for basic scientific research. "We will devote more than three percent of our GDP to research and development," he told the audience. "We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the Space Race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science. This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history."
It's about time.
Federal funding in the physical sciences as a portion of U.S. gross domestic product has fallen by nearly half over the past quarter century. Meanwhile, numerous indicators demonstrate that American students are outperformed in math and science by their peers around the world.
The quality of math and science teachers is the most influential single factor in determining whether a student will succeed or fail in these subjects. Yet, as Mr. Obama noted, "in high school, more than 20 percent of students in math and more than 60 percent of students in chemistry and physics are taught by teachers without expertise in these fields. And this problem is only going to get worse; there is a projected shortfall of more than 280,000 math and science teachers across the country by 2015."
President Obama identified the broken reward system for teachers as a key: "Let's create systems that retain and reward effective teachers," he said. Indeed, we need to "fix" the system such that teaching once again becomes a profession of respect and affirmation for new college-science graduates, as opposed to a professional wasteland that moves most teachers to leave the profession with only five years on the job.
The President's call to create new pathways for experienced professionals to enter the classroom is reasonable, but it is more of a short-term fix than a long-term solution.
Among other STEM education improvements in the works, Mr. Obama noted that:
o Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania will lead a National Governors Association drive to increase the number of states making STEM education a top priority. The Obama Administration is working to ensure "America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. And we've provided tax credits and grants to make a college education more affordable."
o The Administration is tripling the number of National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships. "This program was created as part of the Space Race five decades ago," the President said. "In the decades since, it's remained largely the same size - even as the numbers of students who seek these fellowships has skyrocketed. We ought to be supporting these young people who are pursuing scientific careers, not putting obstacles in their path."
o The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation will be launching a joint initiative to inspire tens of thousands of American students to pursue careers in science, engineering and entrepreneurship related to clean energy. The initiative also will create research opportunities for undergraduates and educational opportunities for women and minorities "who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields - but are no less capable of inventing the solutions that will help us grow our economy and save our planet," the President said, adding that the federal government will also support fellowships, interdisciplinary graduate programs, and partnerships between academic institutions and innovative companies.
President Obama also said he is challenging states to dramatically improve student achievements in math and science by raising standards, modernizing science labs, upgrading curriculum, and forging partnerships to improve the use of science and technology in classrooms. State involvement is crucial. Some states are already taking this challenge seriously. The California Academy of Sciences, in conjunction with the National Academies of Science and Engineering and several private foundations, is bringing together national experts in forum for a free exchange of ideas that can lead to longer-term efforts to sustain and nurture effective K-8 science education throughout California. Such initiatives are key first steps to addressing the problems and identifying the solutions.
Over the past decade or so, education policymakers and academics have been crying out about the need for reform and improvement in America's STEM courses. With Monday's speech, President Obama has clearly signaled that he hears and comprehends the importance of this challenge. Now it is up to all of us - the states, our colleges and universities, school districts and school boards - to rise to the occasion to use the resources now available to move the U.S. back to "the head of the class."
James M. Gentile, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation (www.rescorp.org.)