Losing the Science Race

Fair warning. this one gets pretty sappy

It seems that almost every day there is something in the news about the declining numbers of science, engineering, and technology graduates in the United States. I shared stories a while back about (…larger than just machines) how Microsoft and IBM are building research centers in China, because they can not find enough qualified U.S. technologists and engineers.

The most personally compelling statistics that I have found comes from Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. The apparent lack of interest in science and technology and the impressive education that students are receiving in India and China seem to be one of the focal points of the book. The set of statistics that impressed me the most was the changing demographics of NASA employees.

According to the March 7, 2004 issue of Florida Today, as reported by Friedman:

  • 40% of NASA’s 18,146 employees are over 50 years of age.
  • 22% are over 55
  • Only 4 percent are under 30
  • The number of NASA employees over the age of 60 out number those under 30, about 3 to 1*

Perhaps this struck me because I have grown up with NASA and experienced the thrill of all four manned programs (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle). But that said, I want to put a different twist on this — as is my style.

Of the times that I have known, hands-down, the most innovative period was the 1990s. We found ourselves with a new technology that dramatically changed the way that we thought about our world and experience. The creativity that these opportunities unleashed was breathtaking. It was something that I payed a lot of attention to, being a technologist and a former history teacher.

As I read the stories of the most exciting projects that came out of this period (most of which died), it seemed that the sparks behind the ideas were not science, engineering, and technology people. They were often people who came out of the humanities. They were people who became electrified by these new ways of using information, and invented products that empowered people to use information to enrich their lives.

Even though we definitely need more students going into science, engineering, and technology fields, what is truly missing in what and how we are teaching our children in my country is creativity and inventiveness in learning. Regardless of whether their future is in science, technology, business, academics, or communication, if citizens can creatively and joyously invent, then they will adapt and prosper.

One more statement (and here’s the sappy part):

If you think of the problems that face the world, that truly hold us back from the advancements in the human experience that are within our grasp, they are not problems of science and technology. They are problems of people getting along with other people. It is the social end of the spectrum that we really need work in. This is what truly worries me about the calls for more focus on science instruction — in a time when we seem so unwilling to pay for it. Again, we will lose what is truly important to people. And that’s community and society — other people.

Friedman, Thomas L. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Straus & Girous, 2005.

13 thoughts on “Losing the Science Race”

  1. I totally agree with your comments. It is scary to think what innovations science and technology can create in a world filled with hate and prejudice. Until we understand each other and learn tolerance and appreciation of our differences we remain unbalanced. Recently, I visited a group in Chapel Hill run by Robert Phay called World View. This group has partnered with Rotary in an effort to put students in touch with other students to promote world understanding. It has been my dream to place videoconferencing centers around the world to put children in touch with other children. When we make a country personal and put a name to it, then it means more. Is it too much to think one person can make a difference in world peace? Gosh, I really hope not. Instead of saying, “Why me?” we should be saying, “Why NOT me?” I’d love to have you as a guest speaker at my school during a new program I have started for teachers. Is it possible?

  2. I agree with you whole heartily.

    I taught in an international school in Saudi Arabia from 02-05. In what might be one of the toughest periods in Saudi history. Yet I’m glad I got to experience the Islamic culture. I just wish everyone could truly experience other cultures, by actually living in them. It is a perspective that is priceless.

    This year my wife and I moved to Shanghai, China. Everything you talk about David in your post it true. Our Chinese and Korean students are very focused on the sciences and math. And even though most of them will go to Europe or the States for college they will come back here for work. Both because the want to and they have to.

    My wife is a school counselor, and the rules for international students to get into colleges in the United States are getting tougher and tougher. For most students, they have to first prove they can afford the cost of all four year of university, and then they have to show, via an interview that they have no ties in the States and that they plan to return to their home country when finished with college. So what are we doing? We are educating the Chinese, Koreans, Indians, etc to go back to there countries with the knowledge and become a functioning member of their society, instead of making it easier for them to be an active part of the American society. I do not know anyone in the business area in the States, but from what I have heard the rules on bringing in “Overseas Hires” are getting harder and harder, which is why it is easier for companies to move to places like China and India where the educated people are.

    Again this is all my thinking based on 4 years of living and working aboard. I could be totally wrong, but I think I’m pretty close.

    An interesting perspective from Bill Gates in a Seattle PI article from July:

    “Gates acknowledged that the situation in the United States might cause some companies to shift focus to Asian countries, where computer scientists are becoming more abundant. But he reiterated Microsoft’s intention to conduct “the vast majority” of its software development at its Redmond headquarters.
    “We like to do things in a unified way, and so even though India and China are going to grow quite a bit, it’s a big problem for us that we can’t get these great students,” Gates said.”

  3. Jeff,
    My son is in China teaching English and he says the same thing. I have many friends in India and go there quick often. In 3 years time the shift in thinking there has gone from “get me out” to “I’ll stay in my own country now”. I’d love to be in touch with you and your wife. Perhaps the students in our schools could correspond?


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