Congress Roots for STEM, Proposes Science Laureate Position

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.