Our generation’s Sputnik moment finds few science students ready to answer the call

Sputnik means nothing if we don't go all Apollo on it

President Obama’s State of the Union address last night reminded Americans that our future depends on research and innovation.  The same day that results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress were released showing that only 21% of graduating high school seniors ranked proficient in science.  Moreover, only 1% ranked at the advanced level, deemed appropriate to pursue science at the college level.  Fourth and eighth graders were also evaluated, and the results were similarly disappointing.

Obama made repeated appeals in his State of the Union speech to the need for a workforce skilled in science and technology:

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean-energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet and create countless new jobs for our people.

We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

Over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

These are noble and vital aspirations. Yet the current state of our educational pipeline indicates we may be a decade or more away away from having students prepared to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) based careers.  Only 1% of our graduates are prepared to go on to study in scientific fields in college.  Fixing that is not merely a matter of funding or focus.  Even with the retooling of educational programs and an Apollo-level political will, it will take years and years to reeducate the current generation of students, or a decade to refill the educational pipeline with students who are properly prepared.

Achieving the economic goals outlined by President Obama are very much contingent on becoming a scientifically competent society.  As he said, “The world has changed.”  The days of toiling on an assembly line are gone.  Jobs that will allow our children to achieve the American dream require STEM skills and knowledge, and the foundation for that has to be laid in our schools.

This is not a path we are on.  And the results of our national school report card indicate it’s also not a path we are remotely prepared to travel.  This leaves us in grave danger of having our Sputnik moment sputter out and stall unless we unite behind this cause as one nation with one purpose, and hold that course for a generation.  Surely, this is a challenge worthy of the American spirit.

Cantor’s YouCut program invites public to judge merit of NSF programs

Mad Scientist
Science looks so much easier on TV (Photo by Stephen Edmonds on Flickr)

House Majority Leader-Elect Eric Cantor wants you to know he’s serious about cutting the deficit.  That’s why he’s initiated the YouCut website where ordinary folks can make recommendations for cutting wasteful government spending.

The principle is simple.  Each week a different target will be put up on the website and informed citizens can submit their opinions on government largess.  After all, “The American People” clearly know best how to spend every dime.

This week’s target is the National Science Foundation (NSF).  In a video at the top of the site, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb) admits that NSF funds some good stuff, and that 150 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to people who have received NSF grants since 1950.  But he contends there’s lots of silly stuff there as well.  One of the examples he cites is a grant to study on-field contributions of soccer players, which arguably sounds funny when explained in those terms.

The actual study is a wee bit more complex than that.  It does involve a study of how soccer players are ranked in effectiveness in contributing to the team goal, but this is primarily a study within a field called complex systems.  The goal of this field of study is to be able to model systems where lots of independent contributors have both individual motivations and team goals.  Being able to model relatively simple systems like a soccer game might one day lead to the ability to model and predict military tactics, stock markets, or ecosystems.  Does it still seem so trivial and irrelevant?

The problem is, the vast majority of visitors to Cantor’s site haven’t the slightest clue about any of this.  Most of the grant proposals listed on the referenced site have names like “Integrated investigation of inertial particle pair dynamics in turbulence”, and “Shear thickening and defect formation in chemical mechanical polishing slurries”. This is even abstruse stuff to scientists not working in those fields. This is why the NSF has a vigorous review process where proposals are evaluated by experts in the domain of the proposal and are judged not only on their intellectual merits, but on the broader impact such research might have in the specific field.

It passes from arrogance to sheer folly to think that the average, or even above average, voter or Congressman is in a position to make an informed choice here. It would be like disassembling your car on the front lawn and then asking your neighbors to identify the non-essential bits. The government still controls the NSF funding and the process by which programs get approved. But once set up, this is a case where the execution of the process is beyond most citizens.  You wouldn’t hold direct votes on military tactics or monetary policy.  NSF funding isn’t different.  There are just some decisions that require specific expertise.

It’s important to put this in context.  The proposed NSF funding for 2011 is $7.424B.  This money is allocated to over 10,000 programs amounting to an average of just over a half-million dollars each.  The total is less than half of 1% of the projected $1.3T deficit, so even eliminating the entire NSF (which no one is proposing) doesn’t put a dent in the debt.  Eliminating a few million dollars of programs is simply noise, and is wasting time relative to the structural debt problem the USA faces. Cantor voted just this past week for adding an additional $858B to the deficit with the tax cut bill.  So his credibility for being a deficit hawk is already badly tarnished. Him taking a few whacks at the lab coat clad is nothing more that posturing.

New technologies breed new products, new cures, and new markets.  That’s new jobs and new hope for America as a 21st Century economic power.  But none of that happens without fundamental science research.  On TV, science is often the product of a lone genius on a intellectual weekend bender.  Real science is tedious, collaborative, and just damn hard.  And without public funding, much of that research will not occur.  Granted, not all paths yield results.  That’s the nature of the game.  Do NSF projects get funded that turn out to be dead-ends or silly endeavors?  Sure.  But those are the exceptions and not the rules.  No process prevents everything from falling through the cracks.  But there’s no evidence to suggest the NSF process is broken.

In the meantime, unless you feel qualified to weigh the merits of “Shear Transformational Zones in Amorphous Granular Packings” against the need for “Engineering magnetorheological fluids by controlling nonmagnetic particle interactions”, maybe we should just let the experts do their jobs and focus on the real problems Congress might actually solve.

Shimkus on the genesis of global warming

New Orleans Flood
Don't sweat the coming flood, there'll be fresh veggies in Greenland

Illinois Republican John Shimkus is vying to be the head of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce when the new Congress convenes in 2011.  This committee is one of the oldest in existence, and plays a central role in the formulation of energy policy.  It would also be the genesis of any carbon or climate based legislation.

I’m sorry, did I say genesis?  No, a Shimkus led Energy and Commerce Committee would be the genesis of no such thing.  Why?  Because of Genesis, as in the Book of.  Shimkus recently quoted Genesis 8:22 on the House floor, “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”  He cites the passage as proof that we needn’t worry about this whole silly global warming thing because God says He won’t let us destroy the planet.  It’ll be over when He says it’s over, and not before.  (Charles Jaco, of KTVI in St.Louis covers the story in a video clip.)

Yet Shimkus doesn’t stop there.  He explains that the notion of puny little mankind impacting something like the global climate is strictly arrogance on our part.  Sure, the climate’s changing, but we didn’t do it, can’t stop it, and frankly should just embrace it—go with the flow, so to speak.  He goes on to tout the upside to global warming.  Sure, New Orleans and NYC will be underwater, but hey, vegetable gardens in Greenland!

Where was this line of reasoning during the cold war?  We’d have saved billions of dollars and countless man-years of worry and angst if only we’d realized global nuclear annihilation would be prevented by God instead of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).  And think of all the money wasted on smokestack scrubbers to abate the northeast’s acid rain in the 70’s.  If only we’d have been patient, God would have set it right for us.

God’s fine with us being irresponsible.  He kind of expects it.  After that whole Eve and the snake debacle He learned that having given us free will meant he was going to spend eternity chasing us around with a galactic size roll of supernaturally absorbent Bounty towels to clean up our messes.  So, you know… no worries.

Maybe Shimkus is fully aware he’s using the bible as a lever to carry out the objectives of the big oil lobby.  Maybe he’s dumber than a starving polar bear who walks 1000 miles to hug a man in his driveway and fails to think, “(sniff, sniff) Hmmm… smells like lunch.”  Either way, let’s not put this guy in charge.