The science of staying on top


May 21, 2006

The state of science and technology in Maryland was the focus of some 250 people from industry, government, academia and civic organizations who gathered at the University of Maryland, College Park last month. Dividing into groups, they considered various aspects of Maryland's competitive status in an increasingly technological global economy. Here is a summary of some of their findings.


Maryland has jumped out ahead of the other states recently by developing a grass-roots response to technological challenges from countries such as India and China.

Over the past several months, new warnings have emphasized the growing threat to U.S. dominance in science and technology. President Bush and Congress have responded with proposals for federal action. But many of the issues require state and local responses as well, and Maryland is taking the lead in asking what we can do for ourselves.

We began with a summit. The University of Maryland and 19 other organizations convened top leaders from the public and private sectors to organize for an ongoing, grass-roots response.

It was the first statewide meeting of its kind since a National Academies' committee issued a report last year. The report warned that other nations are heavily investing in science and technology while U.S. commitments stagnate, and talent, investment and momentum move abroad. It recommended federal action steps, and Washington responded with proposals to increase investments in basic research, K-12 science and math education, higher education and incentives for industry.

We hope these efforts will bear fruit, but federal action is only part of the solution. Problems like K-12 education are ultimately state and local issues; states need to organize to get the right things done and better prepare to take advantage of new resources.

Below you'll find brief comments from summit moderators recapping what they heard in their workshops. You'll see a substantial overlap, which, as one of the moderators suggests, points to systematic problems.

Maybe you'll have some ideas of your own and can make some commitments. If so, send them to me. We'll post them on the summit Web site. My e-mail address is: C.D. Mote Jr. is president of the University of Maryland


Panel: K-12 science and math education

Our panelists stressed the need to change perceptions of science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM). One survey found that 84 percent of U.S. middle school students would rather clean their rooms, take out the garbage or go to the dentist than do math homework.

Right from kindergarten, children need more opportunities to experience how science, technology and math are part of their everyday world. Yet, we heard again that the scale of solutions is too small for the scale of the challenges. While we have many excellent schools and teachers, we don't have enough.

It will take more to reach children who have never imagined a serious future in science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- a talent pool we cannot afford to ignore. Richard Steinke is deputy state superintendent with the Maryland State Department of Education.


Panel: Higher education and recruiting/retaining best and brightest students, scientists and engineers

We discussed how to plug the leaky "pipeline" of talented students and teachers. Students are losing interest, and as a result the education pipeline leaks potential talent at every point. One way to address this problem is to focus on the entire spectrum, from "K through Gray." We can find an untapped resource in the retiring personnel from government and industrial labs around the state who might teach the STEM courses -- science-technology-education-math.

Marketing to students and parents is a priority -- responding to negative cultural signals that STEM fields are "boring," "nerdy," "too difficult" or lacking in opportunities. Also, we need to improve science teaching, making it more inspiring and connecting science and engineering to real-world experiences. Higher education can help by developing more-effective techniques for teaching in the lower grades. Communication with industry can help us identify the skills needed in today's world and tomorrow's. Steven Knapp is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the Johns Hopkins University.


Panel: Commitment to long-term basic research

In basic research, Maryland starts from a position of strength because of the presence of federal government laboratories, as well as strong research universities and a highly trained work force. By many measures, Maryland ranks at the top of the nation in federal R&D investment on a relative scale. Private industrial R&D spending, however, is significantly below the federal support levels. Leveraging the presence of the federal government assets to benefit the future of the state's enterprises is a key goal.

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