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Beyond Politics: Science Drives Our Future

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This Op-Ed by Ellen V. Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural History, was recently published in the Huffington Post.

The United States did not become a great and powerful nation by rejecting science. In fact, this is the country whose forefathers include citizen scientists such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Teddy Roosevelt. This is the country that put a man on the moon, cured polio, and developed the computer. The country of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Rachel Carson; of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

So in this election season, let’s not politicize issues that aren’t inherently partisan. Let’s not undermine our ability to address areas of broad consensus where the stakes are staggeringly high—most especially the central role of science in advancing our society, economy, and future.

The fact is Americans agree on many things. We know we need jobs. We know we need to train and develop our workforce. We know we need to be safe. We know we need cures to existing and emerging health threats. We know we need food, shelter, and natural resources for a growing world population. We know we need solutions to looming environmental threats. And we know we need our country to be competitive in a global economy.

Among the most powerful levers we have to deal with these vexing problems are science, innovation, and technology—and, especially for workforce development, science education. Indeed, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) asserts that since World War II, the United States’ world leadership in science and engineering has been the key driver of our nation’s dominant world position, economy, and quality of life. Yet, over the last several decades, we have lost much ground in educating young Americans to compete and lead in a science- and technology-driven world and in developing a 21st century workforce. The 2009 Program for International Student Assessment ranked American 15-year-olds 17th out of 34 developed nations in science and 25th out of 34 in mathematics. According to the Business Roundtable, more foreign-born students pursue advanced degrees in engineering and the physical sciences in U.S. universities than do Americans. Already, almost one-third of U.S. manufacturing companies are reporting some level of skill shortage in their hiring[1]. And, despite high unemployment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ August 2011 “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey,” more than 3 million U.S. jobs remain unfilled.

Meanwhile, other countries such as China and India are actively positioning themselves and their workforces for leadership and prosperity in the 21st century, which will be a dynamic and science-based century, to be sure. Projections from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that over 80% of the fastest-growing occupations (including in healthcare and information technology) require knowledge of mathematics and science. According to the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions, 65% of today’s grade school children may end up doing work that hasn’t even been invented yet.

So what to do?  Well here’s the good news. We’re already working on solutions across the nation. In fact, we have strong leadership right here in New York around these issues, including Mayor Bloomberg’s bold new initiative to create a major university center for applied science and engineering in New York City, extending our City’s and nation’s economic and thought pre-eminence. In addition, New York State’s allocation of federal Race to the Top funding directly addresses the need to develop science teachers in innovative ways, including through support of a pilot MAT program at the American Museum of Natural History, the first museum-based master’s degree-program in the country to formally prepare science teachers.

In Ohio, Battelle and Ohio State University are working with local public schools to create STEM-focused middle and high schools. The first, the Metro Early College High School in Franklin County uses the STEM fields as the fundamental language for project-based instruction across the curriculum. Globally, Canada and Finland have shown that progress can be made in this area, and relatively rapidly.

Rather than a misplaced suspicion of science, what we desperately need in America is support for science and science education because they offer real solutions to many of our most pressing challenges. There may not be as obvious a rallying cry as Sputnik to unite and galvanize us today, but the need to reposition science in this country is even more urgent today than it was in 1957.

Public understanding of science, scientific advancement, and science education are at the forefront of national necessity and opportunity. Science is at the core of the American spirit—the pioneer drive to push the boundaries of knowledge and industry. Especially in the 21st century, science is about finding new pathways and discoveries that also will advance our national interest, the United States’ broader contribution to global progress, and personal well-being for each of us.

Ellen V. Futter is President of the American Museum of Natural History.

[1] “People and Profitability: A Time for Change.” Deloitte, Oracle, and the Manufacturing Institute. 2009.