Science Illiteracy and the Science Elite


Pasadena, California.--Most Americans are in awe of our Nobel laureates but hate science and math classes. We brag about having the world's largest scientific elite while we bemoan scientific illiteracy in our schools. With growing alarm, the aristocrats of American science warn that "a leaky pipeline" in education now threatens our global leadership.

What we're seeing, in fact, is the end result of an educational "mining and sorting" operation designed to cast aside masses of human debris in the search for a few diamonds-in-the-rough who are capable of becoming scientists.

The mining metaphor makes it easier to understand why science education remains such a dreary business. Most students are destined for the slag heap.

The magic moments -- when a teacher recognizes a potential peer -- are exhilarating but rare. At the graduate level, where most of the winnowing is complete, scientists replicate themselves. Over their lifetime, professors with Ph.Ds train an average of 15 more Ph.Ds.

So long as science was expanding exponentially, that was a boon. Science increased by a factor of 10 every 50 years for nearly 300 years, starting around 1700, wrote Derek de Solla Price in his book "Little Science, Big Science." But hyper-expansion came to an end around 1970.

The period 1950-70 was a true golden age for American science. Young Ph.Ds could choose among excellent jobs, and anyone with a decent scientific idea could be sure of getting funds to pursue it. Great American corporations, such as AT&T;, IBM and others, rapidly expanded their central research laboratories. The federal government established a network of excellent national laboratories that also provided jobs and opportunities for aspiring scientists.

From 1970 to 1990, American science still continued to expand Expensive research universities are engaged in training Ph.Ds from abroad.

-- but not as fast. Adjusted for inflation, federal funding of scientific research doubled. By no coincidence, the number of academic researchers also doubled.

But as the overall number of jobs declined, so did the number of the top American students who decided to go to graduate school. And serious young scientists from other countries around the world picked up the slack. By the mid-1980s, a majority of Ph.Ds in science and engineering from American universities went to foreigners.

America has come to play the same role for the rest of the world, especially the emerging nations of the Pacific rim, that Europe once played for young American scientists and that ancient Greece once played for Rome. When they graduate, some foreign Ph.Ds stay in America, a "brain gain" for this country. Others return to their homelands, taking our knowledge with them to our present and future economic competitors.

Our national and state governments now find themselves supporting expensive research universities whose principal educational function at the graduate level is training Ph.Ds from abroad.

Obviously, this will not go on forever. In fact, the feds are cracking down hard on research costs. State government support for higher education has fallen for the first time in memory. Meanwhile the great corporations have decided that central research laboratories were not such a good idea after all. Many national laboratories have lost their missions and not found new ones.

For Americans to have a future in science, there must be a broad consensus that pure research in basic science is a common good, even if it does not produce immediate profits, that must be supported from the public purse. Second, our present "mining and sorting" system must be replaced by genuine education in science, not just for the scientific elite but for all citizens who inevitably are part of our political consensus.

Not everyone wants to be a scientist. But most people are curious. Building on that fact, we scientists must find better ways of teaching science to non-scientists. Unfortunately, the frontiers of science have moved far from the experience of ordinary citizens. If we fail to find ways to bring others along, if only as informed tourists, the public may decide that the technological trinkets we send back from the frontier are not enough to justify the costs of exploration.

Should that happen, science will not just stop expanding. It will die. For the first time, science education for all has ceased to be a luxury for those of us in the research establishment. It has become a condition of survival.

David Goodstein is vice provost of the California Institute of Technology and a professor of physics and applied physics. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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