The State of Science in America

By any measurable standard, the United States is at the top of the scientific and technological world; this is undisputed. But, how long will it last? Recently, the state of science in America has been in the news quite often, and what we hear is scary. It’s not an issue of where we are; it’s an issue of where we will be down the road ten or twenty years or more. The major areas where we are slipping are in government verses private investments, education from primary through college and adult science literacy as a whole. At the crux of the issue is the reality that the current wave of scientific superiority that we are riding was initiated forty to sixty years ago. Predicting our future standing then cannot be based then on where we are but only on what we are doing. When we look at each of these areas we will see how we are stagnating (at best) or declining in these critical areas.

For the first time in the history of particle physics, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) opens on the French-Swiss boarder, the U.S. will not be the top leaders in the field. Our best competitor (Fermilab’s Tevatron) will be about one seventh the size of the LHC, but it’s scheduled to be closed in 2010 anyway. We have no plans to replace it at this time. Conversely, BP has announced that it will be making the largest private allocation of money to research in U.S. history. It will be a whopping $500 million over a ten-year period, sponsoring about 25 labs on 3 university campuses. Over the past 40 years we have seen an absolute reversal of investment types with government funding of research becoming subordinate to private industry. If you are wondering or even thinking that this might be a good thing, think again. Nothing against BP, but I don’t think that they have the interest of the public or even the interest of science as their top reasons for their generosity. They will, after all, own the research and technology produced by their funding at those universities. Other financial conflicts of interest are seeping deeper into the realms of science and education because we (as a nation) are funding less and less research.

Education affects so much of who we are and how we are perceived. So, what are some of the indicators of the effectiveness of science and math education in this country? Adult science literacy will be addressed in the next paragraph so let’s move on from there. We know from international assessments that by the fourth grade we start to fall behind much of the developed world in both math and science. The next international assessment is this year so we shall see if we have gained any ground in primary and secondary education. Here are some other statistics that should alarm you. About one third of all the PhD’s in science and engineering issued in the U.S. go to foreign born individuals. On the good news side, most of them do stay here. Twice as many Bachelor’s degrees in physics were issued (in the U.S.) in 1956 than were issued in 2003. In 1992, 56 percent of the worlds most cited scientific papers were written in the United States. By 2003 only 46.5 percent of the most cited papers were U.S. borne. What is important to remember here is that we are producing our future now. Our scientific and technological mastery right now is founded on the education and dedication to science inspired by World War II, Sputnik and the Cold war.

According to a recent National Science Foundation biennial report, approximately 70 percent of adult Americans are illiterate of the basic processes of science. Without that information it is simply impossible to make rational, everyday decisions about the world around us. Without that information we must limit our decision and policy making to instinct, gut reactions, the opinions of others or superstition. In all of those situations we are far more likely to make the wrong decisions than the right ones. The following is a compilation of some documented survey results from across the United States:
* Between 49 and 51 percent of adult Americans believe antibiotics kill viruses
* About 45 percent don’t know the L in Laser stands for Light
* Between 46 and 54 percent don’t know how long it takes the Earth to get around the Sun
* About 20 percent don’t even know that the Earth does go around the Sun
* About 43 percent read astrology charts in the paper at least occasionally
* About 30 percent believe that at least some of the UFO’s reported do come from other planets
* About 32 percent believe in lucky and unlucky numbers
* About 48 percent believe that humans and dinosaurs lived during the same time period
* Almost 78 percent cannot define “molecule”
* Almost 55 percent cannot define “DNA”
Robert M. Hazen (Ph.D. Geophysics Carnegie Institute of Washington) states that he once asked 24 physicists and geologists to explain the difference between DNA and RNA and, he states, that only three of his colleagues could do it (see the actionbioscience web page below). This raises doubts on our basic education programs through (at least) the undergraduate level. It seems that even a scientist may receive such a narrow education that they are no more scientifically literate than the general public when outside of their field.

Knowledge is indeed power and though this nation is still at the top of the pile, serious doubts are being raised as to our ability to stay there. This article addressed only three of the concerns that indicate the problem. Other issues such as the acceptance of pseudo-science, the contrived controversy surrounding evolution and the effects of fundamentalist religion on science only further highlight the crisis. Making appropriate and informed decisions about topics such as: global warming, stem cell research, energy production, genetically modified foods, etc.; require a basic understanding of science. Decisions, political and otherwise, on these and other topics are being made daily. These decisions affect all of us. These decisions affect our future. How well informed are you?

References and Acknowledgements:

Discover October 2007 Issue
“The State of Science in America” by Lisa Randall (pp.28-29)
“Planet Science” by Jessica Ruvinsky (pp. 42-43)
“Science Under Siege” by Jennifer Washburn (pp. 66-73)

Web Pages: