According to results released last month of a widely administered ACT college entrance exam, only 26% of the graduating US high school seniors who took the test this year are adequately prepared for college biology. In other words, about one in four young adults are likely to muster a grade of C or higher in their freshman biology courses. It is further evidence that the United States is failing at a critical task.
No easy explanation or quick remedy exists for this reality. What is certain, though, is that we can and must do better. The United States has outstanding scientists, maintains the biggest investment of any nation to discover new knowledge, and has a vibrant, private research and development sector that is at the forefront of innovation of new medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and improved therapies. The global gains made in average life expectancy over the past century are owed in no small part to scientific skills developed and nurtured in US universities and laboratories.
But, symbolically and functionally, we are placing this nation's leadership in peril by not adequately supporting health sciences literacy. A trip to Washington, DC, and a survey of its cultural institutions provides evidence of this, while also revealing an opportunity. Each year, national museums here draw some 25 million visitors. A large percentage of these sightseers are young people from across the nation. Going from museum to monument, they learn about the wonders of aviation, the courage of the early pioneers, and the creations of gifted artists. Many leave the Air and Space Museum and, inspired by the story of Sally Ride, consider a career as an astronaut. Others visit the Capitol and ponder a life of public service.
But where is the story of Jonas Salk? Or blood bank pioneer Charles Drew? No child can learn about them and not be inspired to think, "I, too, can better the world." How can a visit to Washington be complete without a glimpse of the human genome? Why are young people encouraged to use their talents as astronauts or statesmen, but not as biological researchers, medical epidemiologists, cardiovascular surgeons, or nurse practitioners?
This is about to change. A group of committed Americans is working to create the National Health Museum, a place of learning devoted to inspiring the next generation of life scientists and health professionals. This unique museum will employ educational technologies and informal learning strategies that will bring the health sciences to life for a wide audience. Its future home in Washington, DC, will include state-of-the-art exhibits and programs, as well as classroom facilities for visiting groups. Its global conference center will include a forum to bring together scientists, policy makers, and consumers from around the world for dialogue and announcements of medical breakthroughs.
The public value of locating such an institution in Washington will be enormous. But through its award-winning Web site, Access Excellence (www.nationalhealthmuseum.org) for health and biology teachers, the museum is already reaching far beyond Washington by disseminating teaching tools to increase health sciences literacy. The site averages more than 650,000 visitors and nearly 5.8 million hits each month. As the museum's facility takes shape, this Internet presence will be expanded to achieve rich educational synergies between the museum's real and virtual learning venues.
A strong coalition of supporters has organized behind the National Health Museum and is working to secure a prominent site. Joined in this enterprise are leading philanthropies, including The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; groups such as the American Medical Association and the National Association of Biology Teachers; corporate benefactors including GlaxoSmithKline and Merck & Co.; and modern day pioneers such as renowned scientist William Haseltine and former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
In 1990, I announced the launch of the Human Genome Project, which was expected to be a 15-year, $3 billion effort. Instead, it took 10 years and came in substantially under budget. The powerful body of information that was acquired is now revolutionizing our understanding of health and human biology.
We must proceed with similar dedication to assure this country's continued leading role in the life sciences; a National Health Museum can contribute mightily to this goal. We must move quickly and with resolve. We owe future generations of Americans nothing less.
The Honorable Louis W. Sullivan, MD, is Chairman of the National Health Museum. He served as Secretary of Health and Human Services from 1989 to 1993.