Opinion
Science Commentary

Living Off Past Investments

By Norman R. Augustine — January 09, 2007 5 min read

For perhaps the first time in our nation’s history, there is a real possibility that today’s generation of adults will leave their children and grandchildren with a lower standard of living than they themselves enjoyed. Whether or not this scenario becomes a reality will be decided by how we meet the challenges of an increasingly competitive global economy.

Competitiveness has always been one of the central preoccupations of government and industry in every nation. Our collective and individual prosperity depends on providing quality, world-class jobs, and our ability to create such jobs is largely dependent upon leadership in science and engineering. Between 50 percent and 85 percent of the nation’s growth in gross domestic product per capita in the last half-century has been attributed to progress in these fields. These disciplines will have an even greater impact in the future, not only on the economy but in national priorities such as supplying energy, providing health care, protecting the environment, and assuring homeland security.

Our collective and individual prosperity depends on providing quality, world-class jobs, and our ability to create such jobs is largely dependent upon leadership in science and engineering.

Leadership in innovation has long been accepted by many citizens as an American province, and for good reason. We produce over one-fifth of the world economic product with but 5 percent of its population, invest more in research and development than any other nation, and have been recognized as a world leader in higher education.

Yet there are troubling signs that we are living off past investments while other nations are preparing for a changing future. By the end of 2007, China and India will account for 31 percent of the global R&D staff, up from 19 percent in 2004, and will be home to 77 percent of the new R&D sites planned for the next three years. Even the status and performance of U.S. universities is beginning to slip, according to a recent study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The situation in science and technology is particularly perilous. Over the past two decades, a period of remarkable engineering and scientific achievement, the number of engineers, mathematicians, and physical/geoscientists graduating with bachelor’s degrees in the United States has declined, in each discipline, by more than 20 percent. American 12th graders, on average, finished below 21 countries in basic knowledge of both math and science. Our 4th graders rank near the 80th percentile among nations in science testing, but by the 12th grade, U.S. students plummet to the 10th percentile in math and the 5th percentile in science.

Today, more than ever, America’s future depends on its investment in human resources. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 60 percent of the new jobs in this century will require skills possessed by only 20 percent of the current workforce. We cannot compete in a global economy with a low-skilled, low-wage workforce. To remain a first-rate country, we must insist on building a first-rate public school system.

Finding solutions is a complicated and costly endeavor. But the alternative brings with it the much higher cost of ignorance and noncompetitiveness. In our search for solutions, highest priority must be assigned to fixing the ailing science and technology system within our K-12 public schools. We need to address this challenge first if we expect other kinds of reforms to have a lasting impact.

The 2005 report by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” offers essential and achievable reforms that can serve as a guide. (“Panel Urges U.S. Push to Raise Math, Science Achievement,” Oct. 19, 2005.)

First, a national priority must be to recruit 10,000 of America’s brightest students to the teaching profession every year, each of whom can have an impact on more than 1,000 students throughout his or her career. To achieve this goal, we should award four-year scholarships for students to obtain bachelor’s degrees in the physical or life sciences, engineering, or mathematics, with concurrent certification as K-12 science and math teachers. In exchange, the recipients would agree to teach for at least five years, and those volunteering at underserved schools in inner cities and rural areas would receive a $10,000 annual bonus.

Second, we need to recognize that teachers, more than anyone else other than possibly parents, can inspire children to pursue challenging studies. To provide the highest-quality education for future math and science teachers, grants should be awarded to as many as 100 universities and colleges to establish programs that would, through scholarships and other incentives, integrate the development of advanced skills in these areas with the completion of teaching certificates. This already has been pioneered in programs at the University of Texas and the University of California.

We either choose to pay now, by investing in skills for our young people, or to pay far more later for lifetimes of underemployment and social services.

Third, since a majority of K-12 math and science teachers do not have a degree or certificate in math or science, the skills of 250,000 existing teachers need to be strengthened through education and training programs at summer institutes, master’s-degree programs, and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate training programs.

Finally, we need to create new opportunities and incentives for middle school and high school students to pursue advanced work in science and mathematics. We should set as a national goal to increase the number of students who take at least one AP or IB exam in science or math to 1.5 million by 2010.

These reforms will require a substantial financial commitment and political will from our local, state, and federal governments. But we either choose to pay now, by investing in skills for our young people, or to pay far more later for lifetimes of underemployment and social services.

Today, 50 million American jobs—almost one-third of the total workforce—are at risk of being exported because we are competing with highly motivated, highly qualified individuals from around the world. We know what must be done to maintain Americans’ prosperity and to keep the country at the forefront of innovation. The status quo is not an option. The choice is ours.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as Living Off Past Investments

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