Sunday Night Innovation: Why Scientists Should Be the Real Role Models

The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 48th in the quality of its math and science education. Plus, 49 percent of American adults still don't know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. Ouch.
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I'm from the Pittsburgh area, so I have no small love for professional athletes -- particularly those who play football. When Troy Polamalu intercepts a pass and dashes downfield, my spirits soar. When, say, the Ravens score a touchdown in the last few seconds of the fourth quarter, clinching the win, my hopes are crushed along with the rest of the Steeler Nation's. Like most sports fans, we celebrate with the team's successes, we share the anguish of their defeats, and then we place way too much weight on how those events will impact the future.

Here are the successes we don't typically see on the front page of the paper: Two Virginia Tech scientists develop a relatively painless cure for aggressive, deep-seated cancers; a team of aerospace engineers designs an airliner capable of burning 70 percent less fuel; two civil engineers create a structural system that helps buildings survive magnitude seven earthquakes. The future impact of those developments -- all Popular Mechanics 2010 Breakthrough Award winners -- should be obvious. But how many kids are they inspiring? Not as many as Hines Ward, the Steelers' top wide receiver.

Don't get me wrong: Clearly Sunday football is not the downfall of science education. But interest in science and technology trails -- miles -- behind the cultural significance of the NFL. The consequences are worrisome: Five years ago, the National Academies of Science released a report concluding that if America is to compete in the global workforce, and continue to improve its standard of living, it must preserve an adequate supply of scientists and engineers capable of performing imaginative, cutting-edge work. A few weeks ago, the study's committee provided an update: Instead of improving, our nation's outlook in that respect has gotten worse.

In the past decade, our population has grown and the importance of science and technology has expanded -- while the number of bachelor's degrees in math, engineering and the physical sciences awarded by U.S. universities has stagnated. According to the National Science Board, in standardized tests involving students from 30 nations, American 14-year-olds rank 25th in mathematics and 21st in science. (They also spend an average of seven and a half hours a day in front of a video game, TV or computer.) The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 48th in the quality of its math and science education. Plus, 49 percent of American adults still don't know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. Ouch.

The stakes are higher -- and, in a time of recession, hit closer to home -- than most realize. While only four percent of the nation's work force is composed of scientists and engineers, the report's authors point out, this group disproportionately creates jobs for the rest of us. Mapping the human genome -- the accomplishment of PM's Breakthrough Leadership Award winner, J. Craig Venter -- opened up a wide array of potential new jobs in fields like medicine. What's more, each manufacturing job created by inventions like gearless wind turbines or cheap, flexible solar panels -- made possible by Breakthrough honorees Larry Fullerton and Harry Atwater -- generates, on average, another 2.5 unrelated jobs.

So how do we turn around this trend of underachievement? The legislation that authorized many of the original report's recommendations, the America COMPETES Act -- which itself wasn't funded until the 2009 stimulus package -- is scheduled to expire this year. Those initiatives included things like providing scholarships for future math and science teachers and the creation of ARPA-E, to stimulate energy research. All of the committee's recommendations could be implemented for many billions of dollars less than Americans spend on cigarettes each year.

But at Popular Mechanics, we also believe in the incalculable power of a much cheaper fix: Celebrating the scientists and engineers who are making our world a healthier, safer and more sustainable place. That's why we came up with the Breakthrough Awards -- to recognize our kind of heroes. People like the team behind the LCROSS Mission, which slammed 2 tons of rocket parts into the moon in order to confirm whether it contained water. (The answer is yes.) And Aydogan Ozcan, a UCLA engineer who turned a cellphone into a digital microscope that can diagnose disease anywhere in the world.

"We live in a time of enormous change...," the authors of the National Academies of Science report write. "A nation that does not embrace innovation will soon be left behind in the 21st century economy." We see innovation happening every day -- it's why we find what we do so fulfilling -- and we know it's not merely a relic of the Apollo program: The four young women who won our Next Generation Award, for example, were motivated by concern for rural Africans. They designed a soccer ball that generates electricity to power LEDs.

Next Sunday I'm still going to watch the Steelers take down the Browns. But I know the Breakthrough Awards ceremony this Tuesday evening will be far more inspirational (and, really, less stressful). Sure, conversation about running games comes naturally to me. But discussing Venter's plans to engineer microbes capable of producing clean biofuels? That's a whole lot more important.

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