Fund science; it's key to our economy [Commentary]

Most American innovations have roots in scientific research

September 26, 2014|By Matthew Bobrowsky

Now that Congress is back from its summer recess, members are considering a number of appropriation bills. Priorities are being weighed, and I hope — given our increasingly technological society — scientific research and science education are high on the list.

The development of innovations and new products, particularly in medicine and electronics, depends heavily on scientific research. Besides expanding the sum of human knowledge, federally funded scientific research grows our economy and improves the quality of life for all Americans.

Technologies that we use every day frequently had their roots in federal funding. The Internet, which has spawned an entire new sector of the economy, was created by projects funded, in part, by federal dollars. Similarly, the Siri digital assistant, advanced sensing technologies, multi-touch screens, GPS, lithium-ion batteries and silicon-based semiconductors — all used in the iPhone — had their origins in federally funded research projects.

Investment in scientific research has a long history of providing huge economic benefits for the nation, particularly in the major science and technology hubs, such as the greater Washington, D.C., area, including much of Maryland. Therefore, it is crucial that our congressional representatives, including U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski and U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, support the sustained, robust funding of scientific research.

Many of tomorrow's jobs will be in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields — jobs expected to have double the growth of those in non-STEM fields during the next decade. Thus, scientific research and science education go hand-in-hand, and science education must be similarly supported to provide a workforce capable of taking on the coming challenges. The United States currently has a shortage of science teachers to prepare students for high-tech jobs. Even worse, fewer than half of high school physics and chemistry teachers have a degree in their teaching area. More qualified science teachers are essential to train the next generation of scientists and engineers.

I have had the responsibility of helping to train future scientists and science educators. Young students learn science mostly from their teachers, and therefore the training of teachers in the sciences — and continuing professional development for them — is incredibly important. One of the most important classes I ever taught was a science course for student teachers. I presented activities that allowed them to work as scientists do — exploring and discovering — so they could experience the excitement of science. My goal was that, at some time in the future, those teachers would allow their students to also experience that excitement, thereby developing tomorrow's entrepreneurs, innovators, scientists and engineers.

I understand that the nation is grappling with difficult economic times, but we should keep in mind that, since the end of World War II, more than half of American economic growth can be traced to science-driven technological innovation. Sometimes the benefits of fundamental scientific research are not immediately apparent. When J.J. Thomson discovered the electron, and when Niels Bohr was investigating the structure of the atom, neither one had any idea of the future practical uses of the fundamental science that would lead to modern electronics. Though the benefits of some research may not be immediately obvious, history has shown time and again that there are clear, long-term benefits from investing in scientific research and science education.

Now that the summer has passed, it's time for Congress to get back to work — and sufficiently fund the scientific enterprise that is so vital to developing the next generation of scientists, improving our nation's economy and strengthening our global scientific leadership.

Matthew Bobrowsky is a scientist, science educator and public speaker. His email is

matt@msb-science.com.


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