Congress Roots for STEM, Proposes Science Laureate Position

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Twenty years ago, the United States led the world in science & technology and innovative research & development. Now, more than half of all U.S. patents are issued to non-U.S. companies.

Does this mean other countries are catching up or that US research and innovation is declining?

It’s not that students aren’t curious about science and math. About 1 million U.S. high school freshman (28%) claim to be interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and careers – but by graduation, 57% have lost that interest. That decline in interest translates to college degrees. China leads in STEM college degrees with nearly 47% of students completing them, followed by South Korea (38%), and Germany (28.1%). The United States produces about 6% of college graduates with STEM degrees.

It’s also not the case that there are no STEM opportunities in the workforce. The Department of Labor and U.S. Bureau of Statistics estimate that in 5 years there will be 1 million jobs available in STEM-related fields, but less than 20% of U.S. Bachelor’s degrees will be in STEM subjects.

Obviously, the United States is losing its competitive edge in math and science. Overall, the average American’s knowledge of basic science concepts is unimpressive. More people know Kim Kardashian’s accomplishments than they do NIH Director Francis Collins’. Clearly, science nerds and computer geeks are not the cool kids.

For America to seriously compete internationally and regain its excellence in science and technology, education practices and public attitudes must shift.

What’s a nation to do?

Congress believes it has a solution. A new bipartisan bill (H.R. 1891) introduced May 8th is aimed at elevating the importance of science and math education in the U.S. The bill — sponsored by Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), along with Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) — proposes to establish a new official position of Science Laureate of the U.S.

The Science Laureate would be an unpaid 1-2 year position, held by someone who would travel the U.S. championing science education, careers, and accomplishments in schools and other public venues. The mission is clearly science and technology education, as stated by Rep. Lofgren:

“As our society becomes ever more technical, a role model for how important scientific advancement is for our nation’s future will help us. The science laureate could serve that role, as an accomplished individual to engage Americans on the importance of science in our lives and who can encourage our students to be the innovators of tomorrow.”

The Science Laureate would be appointed by the President from a pool of nominees selected by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS is our country’s premier society of distinguished scientific scholars, established by Congress and President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Members are elected by their peers based on their influential research contributions. NAS is charged with providing unbiased advice to the nation on science and technology issues.

The Laureate would largely be a figurehead, albeit one associated with honor and distinction. According to the lawmakers sponsoring the bill, this person is expected to “continue important scientific work” while simultaneously holding the post. Given the current economy and the increased pressure to acquire grants — and publish papers to get more grants —  one concern is that it may be difficult for a working scientist to maintain a productive lab and be the chief mouthpiece for science.

Nevertheless, the perfect STEM spokesperson would be one who: a) actually does/has done research, b) understands broad scientific concepts, and c) is a renowned teacher, mentor, and communicator. An effective Science Laureate should be able to demystify the “it’s too hard” mindset associated with science and math, and successfully convince young people to give STEM subjects a try and to stick with them.

In addition to cultivating the next generation of innovators in science, engineering, and mathematics, the Laureate would have a platform to educate the public about research discoveries. Many Americans don’t always understand research that is being done — and, more importantly, why. Remember Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s 2008 comment that mocked funding for fruit fly research?

The tiny fruit fly has been a model to understand human biology since the early 1900s. Seminal discoveries, such as the chromosomal basis of heredity, the steps of embryonic development, and gene mapping, were made in fruit flies. Fruit flies and humans share 80% of the same genes, and their chromosomes look and behave similarly. This makes fruit flies excellent proxies to study cancer and congenital diseases like Down Syndrome (hello, Sarah Palin, you should have been all over this).

Concepts like these are what the Science Laureate should easily explain or clarify. Such communication could drastically alter the public perception that scientists waste taxpayer dollars, and instead emphasize how taxpayer investments have yielded biological advances and disease treatments or cures.

While in principle, the Science Laureate appears to be a reasonable office, there are concerns, such as the potential partisan nature of the selection as well as politicization of the position. It’s no secret that scientists are typically more liberal than the general population. Many push their favorite paradigm – be it global warming, evolution, or the dangers of fracking – with some refusing to even acknowledge alternative hypotheses. The recent burning of anti-climate change books by two California science educators is a good example. Other, more honest, scientists openly admit it is difficult not to politicize science in their own classrooms.

Could the Science Laureate be as bipartisan as the bill proposed to establish the position? Let’s hope that if H.R. 1891 passes, President Obama will choose a scientist, engineer, or mathematician who is serious and excited about his/her new role, but wears glasses of political neutrality. It would be unfortunate to establish an esteemed position intended to excite young people and the nation about STEM research and careers, only to have it reduced to partisan tactics that indoctrinate — rather than truly educate — the public.

Beth is professor and biomedical research scientist at a major university in the Southeastern United States. Born and raised in rural Western Maryland, her social and fiscal conservative leanings were cultivated from an early age. In addition to her academic activities, Beth is an editor for three scientific journals. She is also a vocal advocate for open access publishing and is committed to improving communication between scientists and the public. When not in lab, Beth enjoys running, cooking, and following conservative politics. And of course, from April to October, she avidly follows all baseball, especially the Baltimore Orioles.

8 Comments

  1. DrkLrdBill said:

    Did you really equate evolution with theories on climate change and fracking?

    • Beth S. said:

      I used them as examples of disparate, highly visible scientific topics (and theories) that are contentious among the American people. Thank you for reading.

  2. AmishDude said:

    The first “science laureate” would be James Hansen or Bill Nye.

    An official government scientist is the most moronic idea I’ve ever heard. There are plenty of scientists with cache and moral authority to evangelize.

    Quick, who’s the poet laureate? What has he/she done for poetry? Exactly.

    We have a national academy and a national foundation we don’t need some Science Pope, especially considering how corrupted science is by government.

    Perhaps if our elite class were not all lawyers, we might have some respect for the sciences or *gasp* mathematics. Instead, the college boards are 2/3rds verbal and academic success is measured in 5 paragraph essays.

    Hence, we import our scientists, we don’t produce them. Why be a chump and study a difficult, globally-competitive mathematically-intense subject and then get paid half of what you could have gotten via a wussy program like law or even business?

    And get drunk a lot less often?

    • Beth S. said:

      I agree that it is possible that the Science Laureate could be someone less authoritative on science than a working scientist. And your argument that scientists should be “evangelizing” is well taken, but the fact is, scientists on the whole do not speak to the public about science. They exist in an academic bubble for most of their careers. And while, in concept, I like the idea of a SL, I think he/she will have limited influence despite the high-profile appointment, but will devolve into either a mouthpiece for the administration (whichever party is in power) or a tool of the academic machine.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. Lawful Plunder said:

    The U.S definitely has a problem with respect to STEM education, but I doubt this proposal will do much to solve the problem. And there seems to be a disconnect, because as a country we clearly love technology/the latest gadget and we make cult heroes out of Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg etc. Based upon economic/job opportunity, we should be producing tons of U.S-born STEM graduates…and yet we aren’t.

    Science geeks/computer nerds clearly have an image problem (not the cool kids) but hasn’t that always been the case?

    “Science is hard”…That perception is out there…but it’s also true. That challenge wouldn’t have daunted the America of old, but as we’ve gotten richer as a country, I think we’ve gotten intellectually lazier.

    And we’ve gone through a long period, where the path to riches was in being a lawyer/wall street executive…not the scientist.

    Lastly, I think there’s a lack of quality STEM teachers at the high school level, and that needlessly discourages students who might otherwise be interested.

    LOL…I don’t think I have a coherent point here except to say this is a real problem and deserves a serious solution, not token measures like this. We’ve essentially used immigration to fill the demand for STEM graduates, but that’s not a sound long term solution.

    • Beth S. said:

      I agree with all of your points. Science (and other STEM careers) is not only difficult, but the path to a career is long – sometimes almost 15 years before an individual is independent to test his/her own ideas and hypotheses. And, as you mentioned, in a society that is more intellectually lazy, and I would say, hook on instant gratification, the idea of a STEM career is not exactly appealing. I certainly don’t think we should make it “easier” per se, because then we’d produce low quality, less knowledgeable scientists/engineers. I’m thinking one strategy to take would be to introduce the spectrum of careers to students early on so as they progress through their educations, they are always aware that there is not just one career endpoint for a scientist or engineer or mathematician.

      Thanks for your comments! :)

  4. Dave (@bfmva7xsp) said:

    Quality teachers of STEM subjects is hugely important. I think back to when I was in high school, trying to figure out what I was going to study in college. I very much enjoyed Chemistry, because my teacher was excellent. I didn’t really want to pursue a Business degree because it seemed so many were going to college with that target. But I didn’t know much about the fields I could pursue. So I went to my Chemistry teacher for advice, and he suggested Chemical Engineering. I looked into it further… and ended up graduating from RPI with a BS in Chemical Engineering.

    Now sure… I am in Supply Chain today, having moved out of engineering work more than a decade ago. But that conversation with my teacher set the course for much of what my life has become.

    Anyway… Science Laureate? Whatever. Not sure how much one person can do to help move the needle. But extend that concept out more broadly. Get people with science backgrounds into every school to talk about the career possibilities. Surely teachers have a sense of which students appear to have a strength in STEM subjects, so focus on those kids at a minimum. Help them understand the options out there for fields of study and professions at the back end of college. These are not easy disciplines, and kids will want to know that the potential rewards are there at the end if they can excel.

    Maybe we should cultivate in the STEM fields like we do in athletics? Something about that last sentence feels a little off, even as I was typing it. I’d think companies, if they could identify kids that have a strong STEM inclination, would be interesting in developing the o youth of today to be the scientific leaders of tomorrow. I don’t particularly want the government leading too much on this, as it’ll assuredly get screwed up.

    • Beth S. said:

      Your second paragraph is spot on. Scientists, engineers, mathematicians should be in the classrooms, talking to the next generation about what they do. The problem, at least in my experience with other scientists, is that many have neither the time or interest to get involved in community outreach. And that is where the ball is being dropped. And while I understand your point that government shouldn’t get too involved, I often wonder if it would be a good idea for NIH and NSF to require that their grant holders do some sort of public outreach as part of receiving federal funds.

      Thanks for your comments!

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