The Post-Sputnik Era, Redux

Bolstering U.S. competitiveness is not just the government's job, research university group says in new report.
January 27, 2006

Nearly 50 years ago, Russia's launch of the Sputnik satellite threw a major scare into public officials in the United States, prompting a flurry of policy making aimed at ensuring that the country's chief rival did not get a leg up in the competition for global economic, technological, political and military dominance.

Among the results were the National Defense Education Act of 1958 -- which focused the federal government's attention and resources like never before on improving the quality of science and language education and getting more students into college generally and into those fields -- and a staggering influx of federal funds into scientific research and development. The changes entrenched the United States as the leading global power in the second half of the 20th century, and fully established American higher education as the envy of the world.

Today, as a slew of recent reports have argued, the country's economic and technological dominance is waning, undermined by flaws in its own educational system and declining interest in the sciences at a time when existing and emerging world powers are pouring billions into technology and education and catching up to (and sometimes surpassing) the United States on key indicators. The situation has led to a chorus of calls for a response similar to that of the post-Sputnik era -- and a group of leading research universities added its voice Thursday, one day after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a package of legislation on just this topic.

The Association of American Universities' white paper, "National Defense Education and Innovation Initiative: Meeting America’s Economic and Security Challenges in the 21st Century," urges a partnership in which the government and higher education would step up their spending on and attention to improving science education, bolstering scientific research and development, and strengthening the R&D work force. Although officials of the group had originally contemplated proposing the creation of a new federal agency or promoting a new law on the scale of the NDEA, they have emphasized instead a partnership in which America's colleges and universities have as big a role to play as the government does.

“While the federal government must play a leading role in addressing these challenges, the AAU white paper makes clear that an effective response needs to employ the teaching and research capacities of America’s universities and colleges,” said Martin Jischke, president of Purdue University and chair of the board of AAU, which represents 62 leading research institutions. “Higher education, and particularly research universities, must reexamine the way we train students in these critical disciplines in order to ensure that we produce the scientists, mathematicians, engineers, linguists, and cultural experts our country needs.”
Added Nils Hasselmo, the association's president: "We want to make sure to look at this as a partnership between government and research universities, with the business community as a third component. We're not just coming and asking for more money from the federal government. We're doing that, but we're also committing ourselves to doing things in the most effective way."

Citing an array of statistics and measures that by and large show the United States losing ground to other countries, the association's report cites three key challenges: "serious problems in our educational system; decreasing incentives for students to study critical scientific, engineering, and language fields; and insufficient funding for research, particularly basic research in the physical sciences and engineering."

Combatting those problems, the AAU report argues, will require work on several fronts: enhancing the country's research capacity, cultivating American talent in math, science, engineering and foreign language fields, improving elementary and secondary science education, and continuing to attract to the United States the best students and scholars from around the world. In each of those areas, the report asks for action by both the federal government and by universities themselves. Selected recommendations follow.

To strengthen the country's research capacity, AAU argues, universities should:

  • Expand opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research.
  • Create more interdisciplinary programs that bring professors, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students together to study emerging national concerns.
  • Give postdocs and junior professors more "independent" research opportunities, to stimulate "novel thinking."

The government should:

  • Increase spending on basic research at the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy and Homeland Security by 10 percent a year for seven years, with a focus on the physical sciences and engineering (and sustain basic biomedical research funding at "historical rates of growth").
  • Strengthen education research by creating (1) an Education Department grant program that funds high-quality research on elementary and secondary education, and (2) a new graduate fellowship program that supports 500 students a year seeking Ph.D.s in math and science education.
  • Target more competitive research funds to promising young scientists, and award research grants in ways that give recipients incentives to involve more undergraduates in their work.

To cultivate more scientists, engineers and language experts among American citizens, universities should:

  • Identify successful techniques colleges have found to lower the disturbing attrition among undergraduates in science, math and foreign language education, especially among freshmen, minorities and women.
  • Continue to look for ways to shorten the time it takes to earn a Ph.D. in scientific and other fields and to broaden doctoral education to better prepare students for a range of careers.
  • Strengthen professional science master's programs to help build the science and technical managerial work force.
  • Develop policies and provide funds to help more women to pursue challenging scientific and technical careers in academe while meeting family responsibilities.
  • Make it easier for community college students to transfer to four-year institutions.
  • Increase participation in and strengthen study-abroad programs.

The government should:

  • Support 5,000 more graduate fellows and trainees through existing programs at federal science and education agencies.
  • Create a graduate fellowship and traineeship program in the Energy Department's Office of Science to support 1,000 students a year to help the country become energy self-sufficient.
  • Expand the Pentagon's National Defense Education Program.
  • Increase federal need-based financial aid, especially the Pell Grant Program, to increase college going among students from low-income families
  • Create a grant program to encourage colleges to build or establish master's degree programs for professional scientists.
  • Build on the Bush administration's National Security Language Initiative, which the White House unveiled this month.

To improve elementary and secondary science education, universities should:

  • Give more elementary and secondary math and science teachers a chance to do university-level research.
  • Create accelerated teacher certification programs for experts in scientific and foreign language

The government should:

  • Revive the National Defense Education Act summer workshops to help teachers of math, science, and foreign languages improve their skills.
  • Establish a new mentoring and tutoring program in which college students earn a stipend for tutoring elementary and secondary students in science, technology and foreign language coursework.

To attract talented foreign students and scientists, universities should:

  • Work with Congress and the Bush administration to combat the post-September 11 misperception that international students, scholars, scientists and engineers are no longer welcome in the United States.
  • Continue to work with the Departments of State and Homeland Security to improve the visa process to ensure balance between access for scholars and students and security.
  • Collaborate with governments, businesses, and philanthropic organizations to offer incentives to bring top international graduate students and researchers to study and work at American universities and colleges.

The government should:

  • Continue to improve the visa process.
  • Ensure that government policies and contracting practices do not discriminate against or curtail participation by international students and scientists in the conduct of unclassified fundamental research.
  • Change immigration policies to better enable foreign scientists and top international students who earn degrees in the United States to become permanent residents and citizens.
  • Alter federal immigration law to put more emphasis in the visa process on students' ability and desire to complete a course of study in the United States than on their intent to return to their home countries after completing that study.


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