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Imperiled Nation

'Gathering Storm' convocation laments lack of improvement in science and technology funding and education

by David J. Hanson
May 12, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 19

State of Affairs
Credit: Lois Finley/Event Digital Photography
Secretary of Education Spellings and Secretary of Energy Bodman address the "Gathering Storm" convocation.
Credit: Lois Finley/Event Digital Photography
Secretary of Education Spellings and Secretary of Energy Bodman address the "Gathering Storm" convocation.

MORE THAN TWO YEARS after publication of its most influential report in decades, the National Academies finds that efforts to increase research funding and to enhance science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education are flagging. The greatest problem is getting Congress to loosen the federal purse strings as other issues, such as the economy and the November elections, take precedence over science.

To evaluate the progress made since the release of "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," and to stimulate renewed interest in the issues the report raised, the National Academies held a convocation on April 29 in Washington, D.C. The meeting provided a report card on the progress of each of the study's recommendations and concluded that the nation's performance is dismal. Basic recommendations such as increasing funding of physical science research, recruiting additional math and science teachers, making the federal R&D tax credit permanent, and enhancing intellectual property protection have not been enacted.

Even the argument that money simply isn't available for STEM research and education in these tight fiscal times was ridiculed. C. D. (Dan) Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland, College Park, pointed out that the $110 billion economic stimulus package recently passed by Congress "would fully fund all of the 'Gathering Storm' recommendations for 10 years."

"Gathering Storm," published by the academies in October 2005, received a tremendous response from the nation's policy leaders. Prepared at the request of members of Congress, the report found that the U.S. faces urgent problems in its economy and security and concluded that "the scientific and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength." To compete with many rising nations in the world, the National Academies committee that wrote the report said, the U.S. needs to optimize the use of its resources, particularly in science and technology.

The report included four major recommendations that the committee said needed immediate action: providing higher quality elementary and secondary school science and math education, providing greater federal support for basic research, improving university science and math programs, and providing greater incentives for innovation.

The report had an immediate impact in Washington. President George W. Bush incorporated some of its recommendations in his 2006 State of the Union speech and his American Competitiveness Initiative. In 2007, Congress passed the America Competes Act, which authorizes funding of many of the study's recommendations, including better science and math education programs and more funding for basic research (C&EN, Aug. 13, 2007, page 12). But the early rhetoric did not translate into any funding for actual programs.

Credit: Lois Finley/Event Digital Photography
Credit: Lois Finley/Event Digital Photography

WHILE SPEAKERS from Congress and the Bush Administration tried to put a positive spin on the situation, most other presenters at the meeting were visibly disappointed in how little has been accomplished.

"Since the 'Gathering Storm' study was issued, Fermilab in Illinois has had reductions in funding and responded with layoffs of its research staff," Norman R. Augustine, former chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin and chairman of the National Academies committee that prepared the report, told the convocation. "Nuclear fusion research has been reduced to survival mode, and major high-technology companies in the U.S. spent three times more for litigation than on research."

Augustine noted that even though the effort to increase science research and education has many supporters, translating that support into action has failed. "As we know, most funding increases for science and education were cut from the omnibus budget bill last year," he said, adding that "U.S. industry, though, has found a solution to this problem; that is, to move its jobs and its laboratories overseas."

Speakers at the meeting were even more displeased with the lack of progress in improving STEM education and opportunities for innovation. "We're not looking forward, we're looking backward," said Craig R. Barrett, chairman of the board at Intel, when asked why so little has happened. "We are depriving the next generation of the opportunity to do what this generation has done with innovation," he explained.

Coming under particular criticism was the U.S. education system. "It sucks. By any rational measure you may pick, its bad," Barrett said. STEM education from kindergarten through 12th grade is a significant roadblock, he pointed out. "It's a monopoly system that has fallen into mediocrity. We have a substandard K–12 system coupled with a good university system. And in the universities, you find that the majority of science and engineering students are not from the U.S. because U.S. students don't have the educational foundation they need," Barrett said.

Sally K. Ride, CEO of Sally Ride Science, a company that motivates young women to pursue careers in math and science, agrees that K-12 is the biggest problem. She pointed out how most elementary teachers lack formal math and science education and how so few teachers are certified in these subjects. "When you have teachers without any science background, they can't teach in a way that inspires students to ask questions because the teachers can't answer them. The result is, the longer kids stay in school, the less they like science and math," she explained.

A number of recommendations to address the deficiencies of K–12 science and math education are in "Gathering Storm," and some of them are incorporated in the America Competes Act. These include a system by which college students who major in science or math can more easily receive state teacher certifications while in school, programs to train high school teachers to more effectively teach Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and summer institutes to upgrade teaching skills. Funding for all of these programs, however, was cut from the 2008 federal spending bill.

The lack of real progress on the report's initiatives did not hinder politicians from showing support for its goals. Several members of Congress spoke at the convocation, many of whom highlighted the passage of the America Competes Act in addition to making small points of their own.

For example, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), one of the few members of Congress with a Ph.D. in science, said that Congress doesn't talk about science, just as local governments don't. He suggested establishment of an office in Washington to lobby for the "Gathering Storm" recommendations. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) railed against the burgeoning national debt, saying the U.S. cannot afford new initiatives if it can't meet its current obligations. Sen. Lamar Alexander (D-Tenn.) told the convocation he is proposing a new "Manhattan Project" for energy independence. And Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said that Democrats in Congress might try to add money for science and education to the upcoming request for additional funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Three members of the President's Cabinet also came to show their support for "Gathering Storm's" ideals. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings touted the Administration's No Child Left Behind initiative and spoke of the need for Congress to fully fund proposed programs for improving math and science education. "Kids won't show up in Ph.D. programs if they don't understand grade school math. And teachers without a solid foundation cannot engender the love of math in their students," she told the meeting.

Pushing an expanded research agenda was Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman, who spoke of the need to meet the twin energy challenges facing the U.S.: improving energy security and addressing global climate change. "The fact is, current technologies are not adequate to help us meet these challenges. And incremental improvements will not suffice. We need transformational technologies???breakthroughs that truly change the nature of our thinking and fundamentally alter how we produce, deliver, and use energy," he said.

Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez spoke more philosophically about how the openness of the U.S. is an essential element of American competitiveness. In making a case for approving free-trade agreements before Congress, he said, "America must maintain its posture as a leader in the global economy, committed to breaking down economic barriers to trade."

ONE AREA of mixed success among recommendations from the "Gathering Storm" has come about not because of government action but because of help from private foundations. For example, the ExxonMobil Foundation has committed $125 million to one proposal to improve K-12 math and science education. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation helped establish the National Math & Science Initiative to give grants to teachers.

Not all of the progress has been easy.

David Ferraro, Gates Foundation senior program officer for education, said that in researching public opinion to determine how the foundation can best support the ideas of the "Gathering Storm's," they expected to hear about such issues as low expectations for students and variable teacher quality in science and math, but they learned of other things that were more problematic.

"There was a cacophony of voices pulling in all different directions. The public does not speak with one voice on this issue," Ferraro said. In addition, one has to be careful even with the language used to describe programs, he noted. "If you say 'innovation,' people think that you're going to experiment with their kids. If you talk about STEM education, what the people hear is 'stem cells,' " he explained. Overall, there is no feeling of urgency in the general population about improving K–12 science and math education, he pointed out.

Even though some effective work is being done by private foundations in improving STEM education, meeting speakers consistently called for an immediate, committed involvement by the federal government to stop what they see as the rapid spiraling down of science, technology, and innovation in the U.S. More than once, speakers described the U.S. situation in terms of the old metaphor of a frog comfortably sitting in a pot of water that is being slowly brought to a boil. The nation, they believe, doesn't even know what a perilous position it is in.


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