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U.S. Science Imperiled by Poor Schools and Politics

April 19, 1987|Marvin L. Goldberger | Marvin L. Goldberger, president of Caltech, has been appointed director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

PASADENA — Although science is flourishing in the United States and public support strong, there are worrisome problems on the horizon that could pose long-term threats to the country.

One is the pre-college preparation of future scientists and engineers. Three recent studies that compared U.S. mathematics teaching to other countries show we lag far behind most developed nations. Some of this is attributable to curriculum design but another aspect, particularly in Asian countries, is the far greater degree of parental involvement in, and concern about, children's education.

The teaching of science in elementary schools, for the most part, ranges from nonexistent to execrable. Two Caltech professors, appalled at what their children were being taught, are developing, with the Pasadena school system, a K-5 science curriculum--and some 30 other faculty and Jet Propulsion Laboratory personnel have volunteered to help. This is something universities must do everywhere.

Science and math teaching in high schools is not much better; there are high schools offering only one year of science.

One reason for the general decline in the quality of U.S. elementary and high schools, and particularly in science curricula, is a shortage of qualified teachers. People who used to choose teaching as a profession--traditionally women--can now find more satisfying and lucrative careers elsewhere. Those with mathematical and scientific training are in tremendous demand in technology-based industries. It is vital that the investment be made to get good people back into the schools.

What is so insidious about the poverty of good science curricula is all the potential Lawrences, Alvarezes, Einsteins or Fermis who never get interested and never try to become scientists. What a loss--many become lawyers!

There is another, perhaps even more important, facet of the problem. Almost all serious issues facing the nation have a strong scientific and technical component: energy, nuclear power, the environment, food, drugs, disease-control, national security. We rely on our elected representatives, who ordinarily have virtually no scientific training that would help them make sound decisions on these critical questions. I am not advocating that everyone become a theoretical physicist. But we must have an educational system that will at the very least produce a population with a modest degree of scientific literacy.

Public policy toward pre-college education is inconsistent. On the federal level, there were severe cutbacks in the National Science Foundation's pre-college programs in the early years of the Reagan Administration. Under the leadership of director Erich Bloch, the NSF has worked to restore some cuts.

With this said, you may wonder why the United States has been able to become the best in the world in almost every area of science. How can this be when our schools are so rotten? There are a number of reasons: We have a large, diverse population; the success of a scientific enterprise depends heavily on the contributions of a relatively small number of spectacular individuals; we had an enormous infusion of foreign talent that fled Europe before World War II, and we didn't have much competition for a long time. It took Western Europe, the Soviet Union and Japan a while to recover from the war.

But our real secret weapon was something else: the organization of scientific research. The co-location of research and teaching in American universities enables the enterprise to flourish. It enables the United States to take college undergraduates who often have educational histories inferior in every respect to foreign counterparts, and turn them into the world's most productive and creative students and scientists.

Other countries have created research institutions that do no teaching and universities that do little or no research--a fundamentally flawed system, poorly positioned to keep up with the rate of scientific progress required today. The concentration (roughly 75%) of our basic research Establishment in the universities provides the explanation for U.S. scientific pre-eminence. Nonetheless there are problems.

American academic science since World War II has become increasingly dependent on fluctuating financial support from the federal government. Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, heavily research-oriented universities, derive more than one-half their incomes from the federal Treasury. The corresponding figure for Princeton, say, is probably around 25%. I have several concerns about that relationship.

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