Panel Sounds Alarm On Science Education

By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 13, 2005

A rising competitive threat from abroad could undermine the nation's standard of living and its position in the world -- and the United States must take dramatic steps to ensure its economic future, a panel of prominent scientists and business leaders declared yesterday.

With many low-wage jobs and even some high-skill ones moving offshore, the country will depend increasingly on its lead in science and technology to create new industries offering higher-wage jobs, the panel said. Yet U.S. science and mathematics education is lagging, and American students aren't being readied for "the gathering storm" of foreign competition, the panel said.

The panel called for a series of measures, costing as much as $10 billion a year, to strengthen the nation's lead.

Perhaps the most dramatic would be to double the federal government's investment in basic scientific research. Congress has already done that for biomedical research and has gone on record as favoring a similar move for research in the physical sciences, but funds haven't been appropriated.

The panel also called for a renewed emphasis on science and mathematics in the nation's public schools.

"Today, we are very likely on a losing path," said Norman R. Augustine, who headed the panel and is the retired chairman and chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda.

With the rapid growth of the Internet and other technologies that erase distance, "Americans are finding themselves in competition for their jobs, not just with their neighbors, but with individuals around the world," he said.

The panel, formally known as the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, was created by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering at the behest of members of Congress from both parties. It included 20 of the nation's most prominent business leaders, educators and scientists, including three Nobel Prize winners.

America's lead in scientific fields was the key to prosperity in the 20th century, the panel said. The country remains in the lead for now -- but the gap with other countries is narrowing, panel members said, as rising powers such as India and China copy the U.S. strategy, turning out large numbers of college graduates with scientific backgrounds.

Without bold action in Washington, the panel said, the nation will find itself losing not just low-wage industries such as garment manufacturing but high-skill jobs, such as computer design and pharmaceutical manufacturing, that have been a cornerstone of recent prosperity.

In addition to doubling the nation's research budget with steady increases over seven years, the panel called for many other steps, including:

· Creating a scholarship program to draw 10,000 of the brightest science and math students into teaching careers every year.

· Using scholarships and other incentives to quadruple the number of students enrolled in advanced mathematics and science courses, to 4.5 million, by 2010.

· Creating an "Advanced Research Projects Agency" in the Department of Energy to fund highly risky, speculative research that could yield big dividends, particularly cleaner sources of energy.

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