On Oct. 4, 1957, history changed with the Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik I, the world's first man-made satellite. Americans were alarmed that we had been outpaced technologically and saw the Soviet feat as a threat to our national security.
In order to catch up with the Russians, our nation swung into action and infused new funding and resources into scientific research on a priority basis that resulted in new labs springing up all over the country. To support this national initiative, schools upgraded and expanded math and science instruction at every level. Congress established scholarships and grants to enable young people to pursue science and engineering majors in college and graduate schools. These efforts paid off as a new generation of American scientists and engineers was produced and the United States became the Mecca for scientific research in virtually all fields.
Now, five decades later, we are again on the verge of falling behind technologically, largely because of a failure to provide world class science and math instruction in our schools.
Physician and geneticist Francis Collins, the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, warns that the decline in math and science education has placed our nation in great peril. He charges that the scientific and technological elements upon which America has built the strongest economy in history are eroding just as other nations are emerging.
An extensive study, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future by the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that in 2003, of the 15-year-olds tested for their ability to apply mathematical concepts to real-world problems, Americans ranked 24th among the students from 40 countries that participated in the examination.
The study also stated that 15 percent of all U.S. undergraduates receive their degrees in natural science or engineering compared with 38 percent in South Korea, 47 percent in France, 50 percent in China, and 67 percent in Singapore.
This is not something that can be addressed in a few years. For example, it takes about 25 years to train a research physicist from kindergarten through high school, college, graduate school and post-doctoral studies.
If our nation doesn't reinvest in science education at all levels as a major national priority, there will be serious social and economic consequences. Dr. Collins asserts that, "Prior U.S. investments in science and technology counted for at least half of our economic growth since World War II. Scientific research offers our best hope for discovering new energy sources, making advances in medicine, countering global epidemics and finding solutions to climate change."
With many American schools providing only a substandard science and math education, we have to ask ourselves: Will American scientists participate in the development of cures for HIV and cancer or advanced breakthroughs in car fuel cells?
Our national leaders have not responded to the erosion of our technological preeminence with sufficient funding for basic scientific research, notably through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main source of biomedical research grants to our top universities. According to Dr. Collins, flat funding for the last five years and inflation have caused a 13 percent decrease in financial support for NIH.
We need bold national leadership to revamp instruction in these primary subjects to respond to global competition. A good place to start is to address the shortage of math and science teachers in our schools. Research by Richard M. Ingersoll, a Professor of Education and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, found that in 2000, about 28 percent of science teachers in 7th to 12th grades don't have a major or minor in science—for math, it was 38 percent. We need to provide greater financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships to students who excel in math and science studies coupled with loan forgiveness to college students preparing to go into science and math teaching.
Teachers currently in the classroom should be provided summer courses to augment their science knowledge and teaching skills. We cannot fail to prepare our children to thrive in a world where science and technology define in many ways how we work, live and entertain ourselves.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council. Her new book is, "The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation."