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The U.S. Is Not Making A Big Enough Investment In Its Own Scientific Future

Since the inception in California of the science-technology domain now known as “biotechnology,” the United States has been its leader internationally. Indeed, the U.S. is a major force—if not the major force—in most bioscience activity around the globe. A 1987 National Science Foundation study of 3,500 journals published worldwide found that the U.S. was the source of 20,000 of some 51,000 articles in molecular biology, pharmacology, immunology, cardiovascular research

Oct 16, 1989
Martin Apple

Since the inception in California of the science-technology domain now known as “biotechnology,” the United States has been its leader internationally. Indeed, the U.S. is a major force—if not the major force—in most bioscience activity around the globe. A 1987 National Science Foundation study of 3,500 journals published worldwide found that the U.S. was the source of 20,000 of some 51,000 articles in molecular biology, pharmacology, immunology, cardiovascular research, and agricultural sciences.

However, this dominance can drop dramatically in the next decade, and only partially for reasons of increasing capability among other nations. Much more significant, the U.S. has not invested adequately in its own scientific future. For example, more than 60% of U.S. high school math teachers have not taken a college level course in applications of math to problem solving. A fourth have not taken a college-level course involving probability and statistics. One seventh have not even taken college algebra or elementary functions. Another example: In the 1970s and 1980s, approximately 80% of U.S. high school seniors scoring in the 90th percentile on the SAT math exam did not enter a college major in science or math.

Based on the number of’science and math teachers who are expected to retire during the next few years, and given the paucity of young educators who are adequately qualified to teach science and math, it is safe to estimate that by 1995 there may be a need in the U.S. for 300,000 qualified new science and math teachers. New mathematicians in the U.S. soon may be entitled to federal designation as an endangered species.

By the year 2000, this situation will have serious consequences for the U.S. economy, which requires new science and technology in order to prosper, as well as for the position of global leadership in science and technology that it now enjoys. The U.S. cannot build on what amounts to a crumbling foundation.

More than 1,800 institutions, both academic and nonacademic, perform basic research in the U.S. But the top 50 are spending about 60% of available basic research funds, and the top 100 are spending. almost 85% of available funds. Fortunately, some of the slack of investment in research in educational institutions is being taken up by U.S. commercial enterprises, who are spending annually more than $1 billion to support collegiate research.

While the commercial sector recognizes that its responsibility for bolstering science and technology is essential to its own future, investment by industry is a double-edged sword. In the past, the U.S.’s great wealth of new knowledge, science, and technology has been developed by giving our bright and creative scientists the opportunity to follow their own paths to discover new truths of nature. But will industry be willing to commit itself to continued support of basic research—research of no obvious utility, which fails to yield an immediate financial return on industry’s investment? On the other hand, if there is a financial return, will the scientists who have become producers of commercial value still consider it as important to train new Ph.D.’s in the joy of pure scientific discovery?

The most important responsibility of any free society is assuring its own future. The main difference between the founding fathers of the U.S. and the governments of the last generation is that the founders made decisions that were planned to be viable a century later; recent governments plan only for the next election. We may note that NSF now receives roughly $50 million to support science education which is less in spending power than it had 20 years ago. It is time the U.S. makes a firm commitment to its scientific and economic future by earmarking at least $1 billion a year to science and math education, if it is not too little, too late.

Martin A. Apple former professor of biochemistry and oncology at the University of California, San Francisco, is chairman of long-range planning for Sigma Xi.

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