Americans are devaluing science

A week ago today, Bill Clinton spoke to the American people on the theme of “Securing America's Future.” He drew upon examples where he believes the Bush administration had failed and Barack Obama would succeed – issues like healthcare, income inequality and foreign affairs. Americans know and understand these problems; they feel their ramifications daily.

In the midst of this, Clinton addressed what he deemed the Republicans “assault on science.” His language evokes a violent conflict, creating an image where a handful of conservative cronies in a battle room lay out a plan to pillage the scientific community. Clinton was right to draw attention to a growing conflict between society and science, but active policy decisions are just part of the problem.

The Bush administration deserves its fair share of responsibility for our nation's growing disregard for scientific inquiry, our falling scores in math and science and gradual loss of scientific preeminence. But the citizens of our nation are just as much to blame.

The problem is not so much an “assault” as a long-term degradation. America is devaluing science, and as a result risks raising a generation unable to remain economically competitive, tackle issues of global importance and live well-rounded, fulfilled lives.

What we need is an attitude adjustment, a paradigm shift.

Just decades ago, the Space Race uplifted the role of science in our country. Since then the climate has radically changed.

A study by Svein Sjoberg of the University of Oslo compared perceptions of science and scientists by young people in the United States and in the developing world. He found that American pupils perceived scientists as “authoritarian and boring, having narrow and closed minds, and somewhat crazy. They are not perceived to be kind or helpful and as working to solve the problems of humankind.”

His findings differed radically for students in the developing world. They perceived “science and technology as the key to progress and development” and scientists as “heroes and helpers.”

The lack of prestige associated with science has turned talented students away from science, toward such fields as business, law and medicine.

A 2004 National Science Foundation estimated that scientific innovation produced half of all U.S. economic growth in the past 50 years. Yet between 1986 and 2006, the number of U.S. engineering and technology degrees declined by 16 percent. The United States has become a less innovative workforce.

China now produces seven times as many engineers as the United States. Many of them go on to work in this country; foreigners are a crucial part of our technology workforce. Foreigners file four of every 10 patents filed in America, and they comprise over half of doctorate scientists and engineers under the age of 45.

Their presence allows our nation to remain competitive, despite our own students' flagging interest in the fields. However, as more opportunities become available in their home countries, talented scientists will have less incentive to immigrate to the United States. Our nation will have less to offer the global marketplace, threatening our long-term affluence and economic bargaining power.

In some regards Clinton was right to criticize the Bush administration. The last eight years have seen policies that devalued science and technology, suppressing, ignoring and contorting work by government scientists that ran counter to the administration's preferences. The philosophical implications of our president's decisions may have impacted the way our society views science.

The fact remains, though, that interest in science and technology had begun its decline before George W. Bush took office. Perhaps his choices indicate a symptom of the disease, rather than serving as the pathogen itself. An attitude change is in order.