Science, Jobs And Elections As November Elections Approach

In the inner city schools of Los Angeles, I see a glimpse of the future of science and job creation in this country.

Through a program called Mission Science, students in downtown Los Angeles have the opportunity to thrive and learn. The program aims at leading elementary school students to science by providing them with innovative educational materials, hands-on experiences and a new curriculum.

In a school district where far too many students struggle to achieve at the most rudimentary levels, the results are clear--students in the program have dramatically improved science knowledge. The focus of the program is science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with an emphasis on increasing students' science literacy.

I believe that the future of this country is inextricably tied to science education, literacy and jobs in the fields of technology, engineering and the life sciences. The future lies in reaching and engaging students to let them understand the power and potential of science and technology.

As we move closer to congressional elections in November, the mantra is jobs. Politicians across the spectrum are demanding more jobs, yet it is hard to find compelling proposals for the creation of long-term jobs in this country.

The reality is that we find ourselves importing talent and exporting jobs simply because we do not produce enough native-born, well-qualified scientists and engineers in our nation's universities. The flow of foreign talent from China, India or Singapore will not continue; as the economies of these countries continue to grow exponentially, foreign students who opt to get science degrees in the United States will return home to Bombay or Beijing for their careers.

How do we stem the tide that has led to an alarming decline in the numbers of science and engineering students in this country and, in turn, a decline in American competitiveness? I believe there are a series of concrete measures we can take.

The science curriculum at the secondary and undergraduate levels must be overhauled. Too many students in the sciences and engineering leave these disciplines because they are not receiving a sense of meaningfulness in their education or how they can make a contribution to society. The drudgery of the courses in math and science often mask the potential of enjoyment and satisfaction they hope to receive from their career choice. We need to focus much more on problem solving and making connections to the real world in the teaching of science. Two years ago, the National Academy of Engineering announced 14 Grand Challenges; the challenges cover a wide spectrum of issues, from making solar power more economical to providing access to clean water to engineering better medicines to preventing nuclear terror. These are the kind of pressing global issues that need to be incorporated into the teaching of science in order to inspire students.

The science and engineering professions must focus on diversity. Scientists must reach out to students to share their passions and views of the world. And that means all students, with a special emphasis on women and underrepresented minorities. We are making progress in attracting more women to the sciences. For example, at USC more than one-third of the incoming freshman engineers are women.

But our greatest hurdle is addressing the changing demographics of America. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 16 percent of American high school graduates were nonwhite in 1980; in 2000, the proportion rose to 25 percent, and the number for 2020 is forecast to be 37 percent. We must find new ways to interest Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans in science through innovative programs that make the sciences come alive.

Scientists must become active participants in discussions about public policy and the economic future of this country. Too often, scientists are detached from public discussions and advocacy. We need to tell our story clearly and powerfully--scientific innovation is the economic driver of the 21st century and will separate thriving countries from struggling countries. We need to convey not just the facts of science and engineering, but also an appreciation of the ways that scientists and engineers acquire the knowledge and tools required to meet society's needs.

In the world of science, we often talk about the pipeline that leads to discovery. We have two pipelines that we can follow -- a continued and ephemeral reliance on importing scientific talent or a concerted national effort and commitment to educate and inspire the scientists of tomorrow. For me, the choice is clear.