The day before the most recent Democratic presidential debate, the media reported a new study demonstrating that U.S. middle-school students, even in poorly performing states, do better on math and science tests than many of their peers in Europe. The bad news is that students in Asian countries, who are likely to be our chief economic competitors in the 21st century, significantly outperform all U.S. students, even those in the highest-achieving states.
While these figures were not raised in recent Democratic or Republican debates, they reflect a major challenge for the next president: the need to guide both the public and Congress to address the problems that have produced this "science gap," as well as the serious consequences that may result from it.
America's current economic strength derives from the investments in fundamental research and technology made a generation ago. Future strength will depend upon research being done today. One might argue that many key discoveries occurred as a result of importing scientific talent. But as foreign educational systems and economies flourish, our ability to attract and keep new talent could easily erode. Even with a continued foreign influx of scientific talent, it would be foolish to expect that we can maintain our technological leadership without a solid domestic workforce as well.
Almost all of the major challenges we will face as a nation in this new century, from the environment, national security and economic competitiveness to energy strategies, have a scientific or technological basis. Can a president who is not comfortable thinking about science hope to lead instead of follow? Earlier Republican debates underscored this problem. In May, when candidates were asked if they believed in the theory of evolution, three candidates said no. In the next debate Mike Huckabee explained that he was running for president of the U.S., not writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book, and therefore the issue was unimportant.
Apparently many Americans agreed with him, according to polls taken shortly after the debate. But lack of interest in the scientific literacy of our next president does not mean that the issue is irrelevant. Popular ambivalence may rather reflect the fact that most Americans are scientifically illiterate. A 2006 National Science Foundation survey found that 25% of Americans did not know the earth goes around the sun.
Our president will thus have to act in part as an "educator in chief" as well as commander in chief. Someone who is not scientifically literate will find it difficult to fill this role.
This summer in Aspen, Colo., a group of scientists, journalists and business people convened at a "science summit" to discuss ways to build a growing awareness of the importance of scientific issues in government. A working group was convened to explore ways that the scientific and business communities might work together to ensure that science becomes an issue in the 2008 campaign.
This coming week another group I am a part of, ScienceDebate2008, is issuing a public call for a U.S. presidential debate devoted to science and technology. Eight Nobel Laureates, the heads of several major scientific societies, several university presidents, the chairman emeritus of Lockheed Martin and several congresspeople have already signed on to call for the debate, which would cover three broad categories: the environment, health and medicine, and science and technology policy.
Even if the American public is not currently focused on these concerns, decisions made by the next U.S. president on issues such as climate change, energy research, stem cells and nuclear proliferation will have a global impact. We owe it to the next generation to take ownership of these issues now. In spite of the ambivalence reflected in some polls, there is a popular understanding that science and technology will be essential to meet the challenges we face as a society. When reports began to surface warning that the avian flu might become a threat to humans, for example, everyone from the president down called for studies to determine how quickly the virus might mutate from birds to human beings. No one suggested that "intelligent design," for example, could provide answers.
We as a nation desperately need a more scientifically literate electorate and leadership, and a presidential debate on these subjects would be a good first step in this direction.
[First published as an OpEd piece by The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2007]