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.
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:
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.
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.