Rensselaer Magazine
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President's VIew

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.

A New Golden Age of Scientific Investment?

Global competition challenges our nation’s spirit for discovery

Two news stories broke in December that offered conflicting views on the current state of science education in the United States. The more encouraging was that, for the first time in the nine-year history of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology for high school students, girls swept the grand prizes. This sent a big thumbs-up to young women everywhere regarding their potential to succeed in a science career.

The other, more sobering news was that results from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment — an exam administered by an intergovernmental agency of 30 countries known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — found that U.S. students ranked lower in science, on average, than students in 16 other countries of the 30 developed nations participating in the exam.

Both stories highlight the urgency of the “Quiet Crisis,” a shortfall in scientific and technical capabilities, about which I frequently speak. The fact that female students have won top honors in a prestigious science competition is a big step in the right direction. Yet clearly, we have a long road ahead in order to regain the scientific supremacy we enjoyed in the 1960s, at the height of the Space Race.

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President's View

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of that race, and of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which was created in 1958 in response to the 1957 launch of the Soviet orbital satellite, Sputnik. These events transformed education in this country. Suddenly, science, mathematics, and engineering were at the fore. College scholarships were offered for aspiring scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Educators collaborated on new ways to teach physics, biology, and chemistry. It was a golden age of investment in scientific research, which resulted, a decade later, with the first human footsteps on the lunar surface.

Nearly 40 years after the “one small step for man,” we are still walking in space. Rensselaer has a long history of sending alumni on to careers at NASA, and in the space exploration industry. This issue of Rensselaer magazine includes a profile of one, Richard “Rick” Mastracchio ’87. As proud as I am, I remain concerned about the future of science education in the U.S., and about our nation’s ability to retain its edge. The “Quiet Crisis” is due, in part, to the imminent retirement of scientists and engineers who came of age during the Sputnik era, and we are no longer producing sufficient numbers of new graduates to replace them.

A diminishing flow of scientific talent from abroad (as education and employment opportunities open for them in other countries) is another factor, although that has been arrested somewhat in the last two years. Yet another is America’s shifting demographics, creating a “new majority,” comprising women and ethnic minorities who long have been underrepresented in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

This Quiet Crisis is “quiet” because its impact unfolds gradually; it takes decades to educate a biomolecular researcher or a nuclear engineer. It is a “crisis” because our national innovative capacity rests solely upon our ability to excite our youth — especially the “new majority” of women and minorities — to the marvels of science and engineering, and to the wonders of discovery and innovation. By the time the crisis is fully upon us, we will not be in a position to respond in real time. Innovation requires consistent investment in human talent, which is the intellectual security of our country’s science and engineering workforce, and in a continued robust research agenda.

NASA, at 50, maintains its commitment to enable the scientific innovations that result from continued space exploration, often working in cooperation with other countries. Yet the playing field has widened. China doubled its research spending in a single decade, from 1995 to 2005, and may be capable of putting humans on the moon by 2018, a year earlier than we plan to return. India hopes to have astronauts in orbit by 2014. Europe and Japan have highly innovative space programs.

This is why the America COMPETES Act, signed into law last August to help bolster our country’s standing in the STEM fields, is so vital to our national competitiveness. This legislation supports a comprehensive strategy to keep America innovative by strengthening scientific education and research, improving technological enterprise, attracting the world’s best and brightest workers, and providing 21st-century job training. The challenge today is that the new legislation is essentially unfunded. Nonetheless, we each must do what we can where we are. In the universities, we must redouble our resolve to attract, retain, and educate in the best possible way, talented young people drawn from across the intellectual, gender, ethnic, and geographic spectrum that is the United States today.

I hope that every teacher in this country, from kindergarten through graduate school, works to develop our future intellectual capital. Recruiting more students from the “new majority” and assuring that the path is clear for their success in science is critical. Let us hope that those teenage girls who made history in December are a harbinger of America’s new innovative spirit.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.