President Obama promised in his inaugural address  to “restore science to its rightful place” and “transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.” These were refreshing and uplifting words from a president after the long and dark night to which science and its findings had been relegated during the previous eight years.
But these words also represent no small task to the science-friendly president. A civil crisis of science illiteracy exists today in America, and Obama’s administration is now charged with undoing a generation of decline in science policy and education in the U.S.
With White House attacks on science behind us for now, science educators must take this opportunity to propose a number of specific goals to ensure and strengthen the politically unbiased use of science in education and policy making.
October 4, 1957, may not be a date that is important to most college students today, but what occurred on this day stunned many Americans at the time. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit, all Americans immediately knew that the Soviet Union had silently crept ahead of us in the race to control space.
The American reaction to the 1957 Sputnik launch was much more than rhetoric. The following year Congress tripled the National Science Foundation (NSF) budget to $135 million, and over the next few years of the space race, NSF support reached $500 million. Congress also passed in 1958 the National Defense Education Act, providing funding and scholarships for students and educators interested in science and mathematics.
Not everyone was on board with the new scientific policies, however. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations industries began mobilizing to defend themselves against new science-based regulations on chemicals, pollution and industrial safety, which threatened to impose large costs on them. After the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Christian conservatives also began to mobilize politically. Under Reagan’s leadership, the anti-intellectual, organized efforts to weaken science-based regulations and education only grew stronger.
Then, in the climate of the early 1990s Republican Congress, the Intelligent Design movement grew and flourished, acting through local and state school boards from Kansas to Dover, Pa., to undermine the teaching of evolution. With this foundation, President George W. Bush was able to declare his belief that “both sides should be given equal time” in high school science education.
We have thus seen over the last generation a disheartening trend in science education at the nucleus of our great scientific advancements. In today's education system we import our premier science students from countries like China, India and South Korea. Our secondary school students do not seem adequately trained or even interested in pursuing a rigorous undergraduate curriculum in science, engineering or mathematics. The brightest minds tend to pursue business, law or medicine.
In his inaugural speech, Obama reminded us of the rich and productive relationship between science and public policy that shaped both science education and policy in earlier generations. So far, he has supported his promises with the appointments of distinguished scientists to high-level positions in his administration and by his declaration to reverse the previous administration’s ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem-cell lines.
Of course, restoring science to its rightful place in government will require more than promises and appointments; it will require sustained hard work.
The conservative coalition will continue to press the same anti-science agenda, constantly seeking lines of attack. And without inherently unbiased infrastructure in the use of science policy, any progress made by the Obama administration can be overturned as quickly as an executive order when next the political tides switch.
Our current crises are no less threatening than the launch of Sputnik was in 1957. Just as investment in science education and research a half-century ago met the Soviet challenge in the Cold War, so, too, can restoration of science education and research as a policy priority help us to meet the demands for cleaner energy, better health and technologically agile national defense on which our future depends.
We thus recommend some specific goals for the new administration, to strengthen the structural support for unbiased use of science in education and policy making:
- Re-establish the nonpartisan Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, to evaluate science-based policy alternatives.
- Provide educational institutions a generous budget from Congress to create attractive opportunities for our educators and aspiring students entering the science and engineering curriculum.
- Renew the federal investment in science education to the level of the post-Sputnik years.
- Ensure standards in K-12 science education in all 50 states to ensure the teaching of a fact-based curriculum without theistic considerations as central to modern biology.
- Experiment with new solutions to chronic problems in our secondary schools, to invest in our next generation of young scientists.
- Restore the importance of good science in the policy setting.
To safeguard the role of science in policy making, the next generation of citizens and science teachers must understand that absolute consensus rarely occurs in science and is not necessary as a basis for policy making. Only a science-literate public can see through such Orwellian discourse as the “junk science versus sound science” false dichotomy. Moreover, science education will help prepare the public for the inevitable controversies that will arise with future scientific advances, as new knowledge sometimes takes us to places where some of us do not wish to go.
The promise of embryonic stem-cell research to cure disease or, more controversially, create desirable physical characteristics, and the search for an energy future freer of carbon, with the uncertain economic implications that entails, attest to the continuing power of science to thrust new issues onto our policy agenda.
The new leadership can and must define science’s role in developing and implementing public policy, and students at all levels of education must be provided with incentives and encouraged to study science to meet, in the president’s words, “the demands of a new age.” They must learn that decision making must be analytical and fact-based in policy-making and that the consequent choices we make remain with us as part of a sometimes messy, always fascinating political process. Let the restoration of U.S. science policy and education begin so that scientific research may be again considered, as it was in our country a half-century ago, the most noble and fruitful of human activities.
Joseph Karlesky is Kunkel Professor of Government, Richard Pepino is director of the Public Policy Program, and James Strick is associate professor of Earth and environment, all at Franklin & Marshall College.