No one can dispute any longer that when a Nation's science and technology weaken, the Nation itself is in danger—economically, militarily, intellectually, and in terms of its image and power as a world leader. Therefore it is essential to realize that behind the many pressing scientific issues facing our Nation today, one stands out far among the rest: The persistent decline for several years in the past, and into the foreseeable future, of the very health of the scientific/technological workforce of America. This decline—which, if not reversed, may well turn out to be the Achilles Heel in the battle for maintaining the historic high standing of American science and technology— has several indicators. I will here confine myself to two:
1) As the non-partisan Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable determined by consensus a few days ago, the number and quality of American S&E workers is dropping precipitously—with over 50 percent of federal S&E workers expected to retire within the next ten years, with U.S. production of scientists decreasing since the 1990s (in part because of the long-term decline, in real $ and as a fraction of GDP, in federal funding for true research, except for biology). As the American Physical Society Science News of December 2002 stresses, "Overall, the number of PhD students in science and engineering is at a 50-year low, and there is little sign of a turn-about." To make up for the low enrollment of U.S. citizens, that of "foreign students, in particular, ballooned in the '80s and '90s," and continues to do so—with many major university science departments now having half or more of their graduate students recruited from foreign countries—students which in large numbers return to their home countries after graduation.
2) Not unrelated to the first point is—with few great exceptions—the deplorable state of science/technology/mathematics knowledge and teaching in K-12 classes, and even in U.S. colleges, where now only about 30% of them require even one hour of science instruction for graduation. In April 1983, just twenty years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published its unanimous report on American schools, titled "A Nation at Risk." Its five main recommendations were endorsed, in several public addresses, by President Reagan. To a small degree, these recommendations, and others like them, were adopted by some Governors and schools. But in fact the performance, on average, of America's students is still painfully poor, not only in science and not only with respect to international comparisons with students in other main industrial nations. The Nation is still at risk.
In the days after Sputnik, the nation's leadership aroused our population to make major investments, in both scientific research and science education. The time has come for analogous acts of national leadership, on both points, and along the whole "pipeline," from early schooling to the most advanced research labs. For example: With nearly 2 million new school teachers expected to be needed in the next 10 years, and many existing ones in positions still far below what a true professional would deserve, a large-scale (perhaps State-centered) set of Academic Year (or Summer) Institutes is needed to bring science teachers up to speed, and to be ready to help the more educated pupils reach the next levels. And, at the other end, talented Americans need to be brought back in sufficient numbers into the U.S. research labs, many of which are now demoralized by having to fight again and again in the face of refusals of funding for their admittedly meritorious projects.
I conclude by expressing my willingness to collaborate with others interested in these (here much abbreviated) observations and recommendations. Just as President Eisenhower invented, and brilliantly used, a wide, non-partisan circle of science advisers to deal with key aspects of the international challenges confronting America at that time, so has history brought our current leadership to an analogous moment. And history will judge the success or failure to seize that moment.
Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science, Emeritus, at Harvard University
Author of Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought; Science and Anti-Science; and Einstein, History, and Other Passions.