The Time for Science
It's a fact. The economy just plain stinks.
And as we as a nation contend with foreclosures, high unemployment and an increasing cost of living, it's hard to predict when we will see true economic recovery. Many long-term solutions -- from Democrats and Republicans alike -- have been proposed, but the key to maintaining our economic edge lies not with politics, but with science.
Science is our way out.
Consider this. The chemical industry alone creates 2 percent of U.S. GDP and exports over $145 billion of products per year, according to the American Chemistry Council. Not convinced? Think about the major challenges that face our society today. Answering the country's energy needs, climate change problems, and the increasing costs of health care will require new advances in science -- which, in turn, will create jobs.
The idea isn't new. Politicians and academics have been calling for a renewed national commitment to science for years. In 2008, Princeton University’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman, hosted a roundtable with business and political leaders to address "why now may be the most important time in the last three or four decades that we make a very serious investment in the kind of innovation and creativity that have always fueled this country and this economy." And, earlier this year, President Obama's State of the Union address highlighted the importance of research and development in science and technology. "This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said. "We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -- an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people."
Clearly, science demands our attention now. And as educators we have a special obligation to our future leaders. Now is the time, despite limited resources and uncertain economic conditions, to make science a priority -- at every level, from preschool through graduate school, and every type of institution. It may seem counterintuitive in the midst of today's economic turmoil, but now is the time to make significant investments in science education, with long-term sustainability as the ultimate goal. In other words, to be competitive in a global marketplace, where American children are lagging behind in science and math skills, we need to find ways not only to educate scientists, but also to ensure that teachers are well-equipped. To that end, further science funding cuts are not acceptable. In fact, now is the time when we should be investing more in science.
Instead, we're waiting for details of a new debt deal that could dramatically decrease financial support for science beginning in 2013. While it is still uncertain exactly how, and which, science agencies will be impacted, it is clear that $900 billion in federal discretionary funds, which includes support for science agencies, will be cut. What's worse, if the super committee fails to reach an agreement by the November 23 deadline, across-the-board cuts would be made. According to a recent article in Nature, that would mean an 11-percent reduction in funding for federal science agencies, and single-digit grant-acceptance rates from places like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It's easy -- and frightening -- to imagine the impact of such devastating cuts on opportunities for students and faculty at colleges across the nation.
It is important for colleges and universities to promote better public policy on science – and also to push ahead with improving their own programs. At the College of the Holy Cross, a small, Jesuit, liberal arts institution in Massachusetts, where I have taught for 27 years, we're preparing for changes in federal funding for science, but we're not willing to let them profoundly affect what we do. We believe that liberal arts colleges, in particular, have a special role to play in the future of science. For decades, scientists have benefited from the liberal arts curriculum, which exposes them to multiple disciplines -- essential for a future where complex issues will continue to cross the narrow confines of a major or specialized field. We recently completed a $64 million dollar, state-of-the-art Integrated Science Complex. We're expanding summer research opportunities for undergraduate students through support from our alumni, and we're hiring tenure-track faculty.
Some have criticized the value of a liberal arts education, particularly in a bad economy where jobs are scarce. But the skills students gain from a liberal arts education transcend fluctuations in the market. Others have dismissed the importance of science and research -- often the same people who carry cell phones, use computers and benefit from advances in healthcare.
What’s more, the country has several leading Republican presidential candidates — from Texas Governor Rick Perry to Minnesota Congresswomen Michele Bachmann, among others — who cast doubts on things like evolution and man-made climate change. And their opinions are upheld by an increasing number of Americans. For example, a Gallup poll released last week showed that 11 percent fewer (50 percent) Americans think humans are partially responsible for global warming now than in 2007-8.
At a time when the influence of science and technology, and the potential for life-changing breakthroughs, has never been greater, American society seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
As we look to the future of the sciences at Holy Cross, we are confident that we will see returns on our investments for years to come: We'll attract the best student scientists, we'll recruit talented and highly respected faculty, and we'll graduate well-rounded students who have experience in the lab, understand the value of collaboration and are poised to be leaders in their field. With a liberal arts-based science education, our graduates will emerge as active and informed citizens, fully prepared to solve tomorrow's important scientific problems. Will yours?
And more importantly, will America be ready for them?
Richard Herrick is a professor of chemistry at the College of the Holy Cross.