Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Campaign promotes careers in Science
Campaign promotes careers in Science
US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham launched a campaign to help the US regain its footing as a science superpower by boosting the number of American students interested in becoming scientists and engineers.
The “Scientists Teaching and Reaching Students” program will award scholarships at national labs for math and science teachers. It will require the labs, including Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories, to host a total of 2,000 fifth and eighth graders for at least one day each year.
“The risks of a scientifically illiterate nation in the 21st century are too great for business as usual,” Abraham told about 300 people under a tent at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. “Right now it appears that despite our grand national lab structure, despite the lasers, accelerators, electron microscopes, experimental fusion reactors and billions of dollars in research funds, we could fail to maximize our potential.”
American students are rapidly being overtaken by their overseas counterparts when it comes to math and science. US fourth graders ranked among the world's best in math and science but by 12th grade, the students trailed almost every other industrialized country, ahead of only Cyprus and South Africa, according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study completed in 1999.
The effort will focus on students and teachers in middle school – a time when American children's curiosity in math and science often wanes.
The Energy Department and the labs will also sponsor an annual science expo, Science Appreciation Days and Career Days, where government and industry scientists, including Nobel laureates, will visit public schools.
“Young people are inspired to take up things like sports, music and acting,” Abraham told the crowd, which included scientists who sported “Got Physics?” T-shirts, and about two dozen elementary students from a nearby public school. “I believe it's time we start putting our science leaders on the same footing as other celebrities.”
Abraham said the department has not yet “costed out” the program, but he expected the country's 17 national labs to contribute money, equipment and employees.
The program “is certainly not a waste of tax dollars,” said John Yochelson, President of San Diego-based Building Engineering & Science Talent, a consortium that promotes math and science education. He would like to see government-sponsored college scholarships for math and science students.
Still it is unclear whether the initiative will stem years of declining enrollment in university science programs, and it is unlikely to change a broader trend: Engineering and science graduates from India, China, Russia and other developing nations dramatically outnumber those from US universities.
Experts also worry about a reverse brain drain. Although highly educated foreigners for decades flooded US universities and vied for jobs at American corporations, they are now able to find equally challenging work in their home countries, thanks to the offshore outsourcing of thousands of high-paying jobs to low-cost countries.
Heightened restrictions on work visas after the 11 September 2001, attacks have also made it tougher for many foreigners to live here.
Abraham said the consequences of the declining number of American scientists could be dire – both to the Energy Department, which employs thousands of nuclear physicists, astronomers, cryptographers and other specialists, and to corporate America.
“It is a simple fact that work will migrate to the nation with the most skilled work force,” Abraham said. “Our national security depends on having access to a work force that has highly advanced technical skills.”