Into the sci-tech fold

March 19, 2000|By Julia A. Moore

WHILE AMERICANS are very supportive of federally funded scientific research, when it comes to placing a premium on science-capable presidential candidates or discussing science and technology cogently, many of us are lost in space.

In the decades since Sputnik in 1957, the country's lack of science literacy was a source of some concern but not fatal. The United States made a substantial investment in training -- and importing from other countries -- the world's top scientists.

Federal and industry research dollars were reasonably plentiful, especially in the biomedical field. And throughout most of the Cold War, the same small clique of wise -- and some not so wise -- men and women from the nation's elite universities and laboratories served as trusted advisers to America's decision-makers on science and technology (S&T) matters.

Scientific progress, while unprecedented and dramatic, largely resulted in faster, better, cheaper technologies and longer life spans. It didn't jeopardize fundamental notions of human life and society. And the tremendous prosperity of the 1990s -- a significant portion of it based on the fruits of earlier federal educational and S&T research investments -- enabled the United States to become today what the French call the world's only "hyper-power."

But the times, they are fast and dramatically changing. In this new millennium, we must weigh benefits and risks of such developments as cloning, gene therapy and xenotransplantation (the transfer of organs from nonhuman species into humans). The ethical and public policy questions are enormous.

The country's economy is not so much driven by natural resources and production of heavy manufactured goods like steel and automobiles, but by new scientific knowledge and technologies. The number of American political leaders who comprehend and know how to navigate in the new Information Age are few.

Countries like India and China, with a strategic investment in human capital and science, have the potential to challenge America economically and technologically in ways the former Soviet Union was never capable of.

As a nation, we can no longer afford to have only one in five Americans able to provide a minimally acceptable definition of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). The United States cannot remain competitive globally when elected officials responsible for federal research investments fight against government-sponsored ATM research because they erroneously think it's directed at improving automatic teller machines. Instead, it's asynchronous transfer modes, which today is the most modern and rapid method of transmitting information over the Internet or between computers.

The country doesn't need every citizen or elected official to have a science Ph.D. But we do need leaders and an electorate able to comprehend some basic chemistry, biology, computer science and the laws of physics.

Familiarity with the scientific method, and a knowledge of math and elementary statistics are critical for any lawmaker and useful for most informed voters. These basic skills also are vital for most U.S. workers to remain competitive in a high-tech global economy.

As it is, every two years the National Science Foundation surveys public knowledge of science. It finds large numbers of Americans struggling over simple questions like whether the earth moves around the sun or the sun travels around the earth.

Twenty-first century America needs to smarten up about its leaders and about the importance of greater public science literacy and understanding. If we don't, at best we may lose the unprecedented opportunities and benefits this era of relative prosperity and peace affords us. At worst, this country may become the first hyper-power who runs out of gas.

Julia A. Moore is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

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