Living Columns & Blogs

Good news from the front lines

Part of the federal stimulus package that you may not have heard much about contains good news for one of our deepest national strengths.

Science and engineering education and the research that flows from it have richly blessed us as a nation since the 1940s. I’m confidant these core American strengths — aided in part by the stimulus — will be a major factor in what pulls us out of the current recession and propels us into the next phase of national economic growth.

I know you are used to hearing grim tidings about education in America. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the stories about the death of American education in general and science education in particular are greatly exaggerated.

I’ve spent my life in and around major universities, and the clear good news is that college-level science and engineering education is an American powerhouse that is getting stronger.

Here’s my evidence:

First, university students from abroad come here by the thousands every year to study technical subjects. Years ago, it was the best and the brightest of Europe that came. The Europeans still come, but these days there are also many clever students arriving at our universities from China, India and a variety of other nations as well.

The smartest and most dedicated young people of the world vote with their feet when it comes to getting an education in science and engineering. They choose our colleges for good reason, and they often remain with us for productive careers spanning decades.

The second fact to note is that the high-tech revolutions in electronics and biotechnology are each unfolding in large measure here in the United States. We take for granted that new microchips and better software to run them are produced here each year. The USA also has hundreds of the world’s top companies that are harnessing our ability to change DNA and modify organic molecules in ways that are revolutionizing everything from improved medical treatments to increased productivity in agriculture. University-sponsored research overlaps with the forward progress being made in both these arenas.

True, our companies must compete with foreign counterparts. But competition is a good thing, not a sign of weakness. Competing makes us more likely to focus on what we do best — fundamental innovation that leads to the greatest improvements and progress.

Finally, and this point is dear to my heart as a geologist, research at America’s universities has led to our tremendous success in many different energy technologies. For example, our engineers are world leaders in researching next-generation solar panels, and our research chemists are breaking ground toward discovering fundamentally new ways of harnessing energy from sunlight.

Another point is the work of our geological engineers, who have created a wide array of techniques to explore the deep Earth and recover fuel from it with minimal impact on the environment. We are second to none in this crucial field.

Our chemists and engineers are also leaders in designing vastly more efficient nuclear energy plants with improved fuel cycles, a source of carbon-free electricity we can increasingly tap in coming years if we choose.

Great scientific research depends on top-quality graduate students and young professionals. We have both in abundance because our educational system is working well for many young Americans. Just for example, many more high school seniors have calculus and advanced science under their belts than did kids when I was teenager. That means many students — very much including those coming out of our public high schools — have a running start on a university degree in science or engineering by the time they sit down in their first college class.

Finally, America’s capacity for technical innovation and science education will be boosted by the stimulus package recently signed into law. The bill’s substantial shot-in-the-arm for science and engineering will accelerate innovation that can help the next two generations of Americans prosper.

Doubtless you’ve been impressed during the past 20 years by the revolutions in electronics, medical scans, and more versatile energy technologies.

But believe me, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The fruits of American science and engineering will continue to amaze us, and they’ll propel yet more economic growth for us.