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Sustaining America’s Preeminence In Science and Innovation

Ali Wyne

Nowhere is the edifice of scientific innovation more robust than in the United States. Many who have imparted enduring insights into human understanding of the natural world have studied, completed research, and made epic discoveries while here. Intellectual luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller — all of whom immigrated to this country — have graced, and continue to embellish the American landscape, achieving breakthroughs in virtually every conceivable field of scientific inquiry. Indeed, American institutions and laboratories have historically attained influence because of their ability to solicit indigenous as well as foreign talent.

Unfortunately, however, while America’s preeminence in the domains of science and innovation remains, it is no longer assured. Indeed, international progress now directly challenges our own. It is comforting to believe that this development is fleeting, or, as some have posited, illusory. Unfortunately, however, the available literature on this subject is, with rare exceptions, in agreement; this trend shows little sign of reversing.

In May 2004, The New York Times concluded that “Foreign advances in basic science now often rival or even exceed America’s, apparently with little public awareness of the trend or its implications for jobs, industry, national security or the vigor of the nation’s intellectual and cultural life.” The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation issued a similar assessment:

For more than half a century, the United States has led the world in scientific discovery and innovation. It has been a beacon, drawing the best scientists to its educational institutions, industries and laboratories from around the globe. However, in today’s rapidly evolving competitive world, the United States can no longer take its supremacy for granted. Nations from Europe to Eastern Asia are on a fast track to pass the United States in scientific excellence and technological innovation.

Specifically, Northern European countries such as Scandinavia and Finland have emerged as some of the most dynamic participants in and forces behind the advancement of information technology, diminishing the United States’ ability to attract specialists in knowledge-based industries. Furthermore, East Asian countries such as China, Singapore, and Taiwan pose serious threats to the United States’ dominance in nanotechnology and bioinformatics, among other specialized scientific fields.

As the international community’s progress accelerates, ours appears to be slowing. In 1975, among developed countries, the United States ranked third in the proportion of college students majoring in science and engineering; today, it ranks seventeenth. Furthermore, at the turn of the century, Asian and European universities awarded 2,050,000 degrees in science and engineering; American universities, by contrast, awarded 500,000. Redressing such disparities is a daunting task, because their sources are numerous, complex, and interrelated.

Clearly, the United States maintains a perilous degree of dependency on outsiders. Fully, as of 2003, 20 percent of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences’ members, and 33 percent of American Nobel Laureates were foreign-born; furthermore, of this country’s scientists and engineers who possess doctorate degrees, nearly 40 percent of them were born outside of the United States. Maintaining a high level of reliance on foreign-born scientists is somewhat sensible if it can be assured that the United States will always be able to attract them, in large numbers. However, such is not the case.

Therefore, the leadership of this country must invest significant time and capital into sustaining a continuous flow of international students and research scientists. Because this effort might not be as successful as hoped, they must also actively nurture and recruit indigenous talent. Specifically, they must take aim at our system of secondary education, in which achieving competence in science and technology is scarcely viewed as a meaningful priority. That the quality of the average high school laboratory is so low is ample testament to this fact. The National Research Council issued this sobering judgment:

The typical high school lab is an isolated add-on that lacks clear goals, does not engage students in discussion and fails to illustrate how scientific methods lead to knowledge … Most of the labs are of such poor quality that they don’t follow basic principles of effective science teaching … Contributing to the problem: teachers who aren’t prepared to run labs, state exams that don’t measure lab skills, wide disparities in the quality of equipment, and a simple lack of consensus over what “laboratory” means in the school environment.

How are students who might potentially be interested in careers in science and technology to discover their latent passions if the instruction which they receive is of such inferior quality?

As the world’s leading institute of science and technology, MIT is uniquely capable of and responsible for arresting, or, at the very least, slowing the United States’ regression in scientific and technical innovation. The 2001 Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security properly noted that this decline “pose[s] a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.”

I would be remiss to neglect the ways in which MIT has already made significant contributions to averting this threat. Through programs such as the Minority Introduction to Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Science Programs; the Women’s Technology Program; and the Research Science Institute, it recruits some of the world’s most talented and promising minds to experience the rigor and rewards of professional research.

However, what is needed now is an initiative that targets “potential converts”: not those individuals already interested in pursuing science and technology, but, rather, students who might become interested were they to receive stimulating and demanding education in these fields.

It is this type of effort which MIT should, and, indeed, must pioneer, not only to fulfill its stated mission, but also to ensure that we bequeath to future generations a country whose scientific and technological capabilities are without peer. MIT’s administration has already exhibited an admirable desire to address and resolve the urgent issues of our time. (The decision to establish an Energy Research Council readily comes to mind.) The United States’ increasingly vulnerable position in the realms of science and innovation certainly qualifies as an urgent imperative. As such, I would like to propose that MIT establish a task force on (i) ensuring the steady flow of international students and scientists to the United States, and on (ii) enhancing the role of science in America’s schools. If MIT does spearhead such an effort, doubtless many in the community, both students and faculty, will be as eager as I to help.