The most critical science policy decisions that face you can all be reduced to a three words: education, education, education.
In 1957, I was a little kid growing up at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, Werner Von Braun's first American test site. I well remember the news stories in the paper on Saturday, October 5, when Sputnik went up, and well remember the flood of money that came to our missile base and to educational institutions everywhere in the months that followed. Three of my classmates and I got our pictures in newspapers all over the country posing thoughtfully with models of missiles because we—growing up at White Sands—were supposed to be the hope of the next generation. (Me, I decided a few years later that rocket science was what middle aged guys in suits did, so to be truly rebellious I went off to study Greek and Latin, but another few years later I wound up as CIO of a great university, so the education money wasn't all mis-spent.)
American science in the near half-century since has done wonderful things—but we train fewer scientists every year, we can't fill secondary school classrooms with trained science teachers, we cannot support the building of research facilities in our universities, and the mass media and the houses of congress are full of scientific illiterates. Scientific research will not fix all humankind's problems—but so far it has made us healthier, better fed, more prosperous, and better able to achieve the potential of human intelligence and human society than my grandfather's generation could have imagined.
But we will go nowhere near where we need to go without the smart, trained people to take us there. We must be as relentless in hunting down that talent as we are in pursuing terrorists, and as committed to winning the hearts and minds on the American street to an understanding of the power of science as we are to winning hearts and minds on middle eastern streets. We can probably win wars, but to make them worth winning, we must build a world that makes all humankind thrive in ways that are only possible with that most rigorous application of our most precious resource—human intelligence.
James J. O'Donnell
Professor of Classics
Author of Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace.