Part of the federal stimulus package that you may not have heard much about contains good news for one of our deep strengths in this country – science and engineering education and the research that flows from it. I’m confidant that core American strength will be part of what pulls us out of this recession and propels us into the next phase of national economic growth.
I know you are used to hearing grim tidings about education in America. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the stories about the death of American education in general and science education in particular are greatly exaggerated.
I’ve spent my adult life in and around major universities, and the clear good news is that college-level science and engineering education is an American powerhouse that is getting stronger.
Here’s my evidence:
First, university students from abroad come here by the thousands every year to study technical subjects. Years ago, it was the best and the brightest of Europe who came. The Europeans still do come, but these days there are also many able arrivals from China, India and a variety of other nations as well.
The smartest and most dedicated young people of the world vote with their feet when it comes to getting an education in science and engineering. They choose our universities for good reason, and they often remain with us for productive careers spanning decades.
The second fact to note is that the high-tech revolutions in electronics and biotechnology are each unfolding in large measure here in the U.S. We take it for granted that new microchips and better software to run them are produced here each year. The U.S. also has hundreds of the world’s top companies that are harnessing our ability to change DNA and modify organic molecules in ways that are revolutionizing everything from improved medical treatments to increased productivity in agriculture.
True, we must compete with foreign firms. But competition is good. It actually makes us stronger and more likely to focus on what we do best – fundamental innovation that leads to the greatest improvements and progress.
Finally, and this point is dear to my heart as a geologist, research at America’s universities has led to our tremendous success in many different energy technologies. Just as one example, our engineers are world leaders in designing the next-generation batteries on which better plug-in hybrids and useful electric cars will depend.
Another example is the work of our geological engineers, who have created a wide array of techniques to explore the deep Earth and recover fuel from it with minimal impact on the environment. We are second to none in this crucial field.
Our chemists and engineers are also leaders in designing vastly more efficient nuclear energy plants with improved fuel cycles, a source of carbon-free electricity we can increasingly tap in coming years.
In short, we’ve got a great foundation in energy and are building on it each day.
American science-based innovation will be boosted by the stimulus package recently signed into law. A substantial shot-in-the-arm for research funding will accelerate innovation that can help the next two generations of Americans prosper well beyond what we’ve known in the past.
Here’s one last image from the educational front lines: many more American high school seniors have calculus and advanced science under their belts than did kids when I was teenager in the 1970s. That means many students – very much including those coming out of our public high schools – have a running start on a university degree in science or engineering by the time they sit down in their first college class.
American students are the core of what we do at universities in the U.S., and our students are a talented, diverse and creative pool on which we draw successfully each day.
In short, we’ve got a good thing going in this country with science and engineering education, and I can assure you the future looks bright indeed.
Doubtless you’ve been impressed over the past 20 years by the revolutions in personal electronics, medical scans, more versatile energy technologies and all the rest.
But believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. American science and engineering prowess will continue to amaze you.