Fifty years ago last October, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, sending shock waves through the U.S. national security apparatus. To many Americans, this Communist challenge to U.S. scientific superiority posed a danger to the free world. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Congress responded by boosting federal spending on scientific research. In the process, they ushered in a golden era for American higher education, one that greatly expanded the number of research universities and scientists and propelled the country’s technological advancement.
Today the country faces another Sputnik moment: Globalization has flattened the world, enabling other countries to become much more competitive in the production of technology-based goods and services. Much has been written about how China and India, in particular, are racing to become technology superpowers, putting substantial sums into universities and training a growing number of scientists and engineers.
How the U.S. responds to this challenge will be largely determined by the next president, engineering educators believe. Whoever takes office in January 2009 will play a key role in setting the federal agenda and developing a national vision for research and science education.
“We need someone to challenge us to a moon shot,” says John K. Schueller, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida. “We need the equivalent of a promise to go to the moon within a decade, and then we need the will, leadership and money to back it up.”
The stakes for America’s future competitiveness, let alone preeminence, are high. Yet so far, none of the presidential candidates has issued a challenge comparable to the one Schueller cites: President John F. Kennedy’s clarion call in 1962—two years after his election—for the United States to capture the lead in space by landing a man on the moon within 10 years. While most major candidates offer sound bites and proposals on improving scientific research and technology education, none has made science a top priority. As a result, for educators, the 2008 presidential race amounts to a roll of the dice.
“This election is occurring at an important period in our history,” says Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering. “The next president will be faced head on with all the global forces that are beginning to build. Economic growth will be determined by whoever leads in knowledge, innovation, and expertise.”
In 2005, Vest, a former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped write a landmark study for the National Academies, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” The often-cited report warned that the U.S. is facing an alarming shortage of scientists and engineers, and put the issue front-and-center in the nation’s capital. Last August, President Bush signed the America Competes Act, which implemented some of the academies’ major recommendations, including an increase in federal funds for physical science research.
But engineering professors and deans say that legislation did not go far enough. Now, as the 2008 presidential campaign kicks into high gear, they want to hear the candidates talk about their plans for a range of issues affecting American competitiveness, including:
- Raising the level of federal spending on academic research;
- Increasing the number degree-earners, especially women and minorities, in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; and
- Strengthening the federal government’s role in setting scientific priorities to focus research agencies on specific goals.
These are not the kinds of topics that typically grab voters’ interest, which may be one reason for the candidates’ reluctance to call attention to them.
“The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are not kitchen-table issues,” says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Keystone Poll at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, a traditional battleground state in the presidential election. “Unless the candidates are able to connect those issues to the pocketbook of the average American voter, they will have trouble gaining traction.”
Another reason is money. The National Academies’ report called for the federal government to spend $10 billion to double funds for basic research in the physical sciences and to create 25,000 college scholarships in math and science. But while the new America Competes Act set the budgets of the NSF and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science on a schedule to double over seven years, it did not actually provide the dollars to make that happen.
In reality, finding money to fulfill any new campaign promise is sure to be a major challenge for the next president, says Madonna. “There are too many competing priorities,” he observes. “There’s the war in Iraq, healthcare, and entitlement programs lined up ahead of almost everything else.”
Huge deficits will constrain the new administration at a time when federal spending for academic research and development is already lagging. In the 2005-6 fiscal year, such spending fell for the first time in nearly 25 years, after adjusting for inflation.
Biomedical engineers in particular have been singing the blues about money since 2003, the final year of a five-year White House push to double the NIH budget. Since then, NIH spending—the largest single source of funds for academic research—has received increases below inflation. And in 2005 and 2006, slow growth also hit the NSF’s budget, the second-largest source of federal money for academic research.
Harvey Borovetz, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, is particularly concerned about the impact of slim federal research budgets on the recruitment of young faculty members. “A number of students may decide it’s not worth pursuing advanced degrees because they see their professors struggling to get their next grant,” he says.
In fact, even during periods over the past decade when NIH experienced funding increases, first-time grant applicants were more often than not rejected. The number who received a first-ever grant grew by just 7 percent between 1998 and 2002, at a time when the agency’s budget had doubled.
Borovetz wants the next president not only to boost federal research funds, but also to direct those new dollars to younger scientists. “We have to expose our students to innovation,” he says. So far, four Democrats and one Republican have called publicly for an increase in federal spending on research and development.
In a 2007 speech at the Carnegie Institution for Science on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed a 50-percent increase in the NIH budget over five years and said she would seek to double it over 10 years. The second-term senator from New York also promised to establish a $50 billion “Strategic Energy Fund” to develop technologies to promote conservation, address climate change, and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.
“I will reaffirm our commitment to basic research, invest in clean energy, combat global warming, create the millions of jobs that I think come from doing both of those, re-emphasize math and science education, and ensure that America is training the future innovators of our country,” Clinton said. “America will once again be the innovation nation.”
Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson have also indicated that they would increase federal spending on research, although none of them has offered specifics. “When George Bush requests $196 billion for next year’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is seeing a flat-lining of investment in science research, that makes it more difficult for us to encourage our children to go into science,” Obama said at an October debate among the Democratic presidential hopefuls.
One concern engineering professors and deans want the new administration to address is the current imbalance between federal spending on biomedical research and other scientific disciplines. In fiscal 2006, biomedical research claimed more than half the $30 billion that the federal government spent on research at colleges and universities.
The America Competes Act is aimed at balancing the two sides. Supporters of a realignment say that research in engineering and computer science has the potential to lead to valuable new commercial technologies, as occurred with the Internet. However, the Act does not greatly increase physical-sciences research supported by the Defense Department and NASA.
“The next president needs to develop a national strategy for research to be sure that every agency is getting its fair share,” says Charles Westgate, an electrical engineering professor at Binghamton and Johns Hopkins universities. “Otherwise, the money is going to go to what’s popular, and that’s usually the NIH.”
Getting Better Students
Westgate and other engineering educators want the incoming president not only to expand research spending but to provide more money to help students in the science and engineering fields, as the federal government did in the late 1950s and 1960s. After Sputnik, the number of doctoral degrees awarded skyrocketed, from 8,611 in 1957 to 33,755 in 1973. Passed in 1958, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) helped students pay for their studies by providing graduate fellowships in science and a loan program that later became the Perkins Federal Loan Program. According to the Association of American Universities, an organization of research institutions, the NDEA contributed to a half-century of U.S. dominance in science and technology.
While both fellowship and loan programs continue today, the National Academies’ report recommended that the U.S. do much more in order to keep up with the number of scientists and engineers being produced in Asia. The report highlighted the sorry state of U.S. K-12 science and math education and the lack of financial support for college students in the STEM fields. Recent test results from the Program for International Student Assessment showed U.S. students again trailing those from other nations in math and science.
“We’ve been saying it for years, but it’s all about the pipeline,” says Mark Law, professor and chairman of the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida. “Unless we improve the quality of students coming to us from high school, and unless we get them more interested in engineering at a young age, we will never be able to get to where we need to be in terms of engineering graduates.”
On the campaign trail, the presidential candidates generally seem to agree with Law’s criticism of K-12 education, especially in science and math. At an appearance in Iowa last fall, Republican Fred Thompson said every state should designate a specific number of high schools to focus on science and technology and then recruit the best students from that state to fill the classrooms.
“We need to encourage students and teachers to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math—fields that are crucial to our security, competitiveness and prosperity,” said Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee. “State and local governments are best situated to implement these changes and innovations.”
Not all the Republican candidates agree that the solution lies with state and local governments, however. Mitt Romney, for one, believes there is a role for the federal government. He wants to put in place on the federal level some of the changes he made to K-12 education as governor of Massachusetts.
Among the ideas Romney wants to take national: Awarding bonuses to teachers for having math and science capability and for Advanced Placement teaching; providing every student a laptop computer; creating math and science academies for the best and brightest students; and testing for engineering skills in science exams.
“Our high school seniors rank in the bottom 10% in math and the bottom 25% in science. How can you lead the world if the kids in the next generation are falling behind in the skills they need to innovate and create new enterprises?” the former Massachusetts governor said at a speech at the Detroit Economic Club last February.
Rudolph Giuliani, who led the GOP field for much of the fall, wants to strengthen the role community colleges play in educating scientists and engineers. At a campaign stop in South Carolina in October, the former New York mayor noted that 1 in 5 engineering degree holders began their academic careers by earning at least 10 credits at community colleges. “Education is power in an information economy,” Giuliani said. “Our high schools, our community colleges, and our universities all must be part of the answer to making sure that the U.S. remains competitive.”
To encourage more students to major in STEM fields in college, Giuliani has also said he would expand two Bush administration programs that supplement federal Pell Grants for low-income students who pursue a rigorous course of study in high school and major in science and math in college.
But so far the number of students who have been awarded Academic Competitiveness and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) grants has fallen far short of expectations. Some 361,000 students received the grants this academic year, significantly fewer than the 505,000 the U.S. Department of Education had estimated would qualify. Like the Education Department, Giuliani blames the low participation rate on a public-school system that fails to prepare students adequately for college-level math and science.
“We have social-studies teachers teaching science in some schools,” Giuliani said at a town-hall meeting in Iowa in November. “That’s unacceptable in 2007, when students need to learn the latest science and math concepts and be challenged to do better.”
If Republican John McCain is elected president, academe could count on an intense struggle between the White House and Congress over earmarks for higher-education institutions. The Arizona senator has long been a vocal opponent of this congressional method of distributing pork-barrel dollars, particularly to universities, which receive more than $2 billion yearly through the process. Critics say earmarks circumvent open competition for research funds, while supporters say the method is the only means of paying for worthy projects that federal grant makers overlook.
On other issues, McCain said he would promote competitiveness in science and technology by shielding intellectual property and retraining displaced workers. He also wants to increase U.S. production of nuclear energy: “We’ve let the fears of 30 years ago, and an endless political squabble over the storage of nuclear spent fuel, make it virtually impossible to build a single new plant that produces a form of energy that is safe and non-polluting.”
Republican Mike Huckabee told an audience at the University of Northern Iowa in November that one of the biggest problems with America’s education system is that it bores students. At the university’s forum on education, the former Arkansas governor also reiterated his support for putting a greater emphasis on the arts.“We’ve come to the conclusion that we were behind other countries in math and science, and we’ve changed requirements,” Mr. Huckabee said. “We’ve done so at the expense of music and art, and in doing so we’ve made a huge, stupid mistake.”
Among the Democrats, Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, has proposed hiring 100,000 new math and science teachers and working with colleges and businesses to build 250 math, science, and innovation academies throughout the country.
“It’s a simple equation—talented math and science teachers lead to inspired and successful math and science students,” Richardson said in an October speech at a high school in New Hampshire. “High-quality math and science education is not optional. It is essential to holding our position as the world’s leader of progress and hope. And I will set a national goal of making America No. 1 in the world in math and science within 15 years.”
When asked what they would advise the presidential candidates if given a chance, several engineering deans and professors said they would encourage candidates to keep politics out of science policy decisions. Several educators cited reports of government-sponsored scientific studies that have been altered or challenged by the Bush administration because the findings did not agree with the president’s policy positions.
“In this administration, I’m concerned that the voice of science is not loud enough,” says Don P. Giddens, dean of engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He wants the next president to elevate the science adviser to a cabinet-level position to give that person a more prominent role in the administration.
Whether or not that will happen is unclear at this point in the campaign. But as long as engineering deans and professors can tie their concerns to the larger issue of American competitiveness, they are more likely to hear the candidates talking about what matters to engineering educators.
What They’ve Promised
STEM education and federal science research have not been a priority for the major candidates, either Republicans or Democrats. Here is what is known so far about the policy positions of seven top presidential hopefuls:
Hillary Rodham Clinton
- Increase the National Institutes of Health budget by 50 percent over five years and double it over 10 years.
- Establish a $50-billion “Strategic Energy Fund” to develop technologies to promote conservation, combat global warming and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.
- Raise the president’s science adviser to a rank of “assistant to the president.”
- Make the Research and Experimentation tax credit permanent.
- Create a New Energy Economy Fund to invest in clean, renewable energies like wind, solar, and biofuels, develop a new generation of efficient cars and trucks and put new energy-saving technologies to work in buildings, transportation and industry.
- Set a national broadband policy to help make the Internet more affordable and accessible to all Americans, regardless of where they live or how much money they have.
- Overhaul the teacher preparation process for science and math through a Teaching Residency Program in which prospective teachers work alongside a mentor teacher for one year, while undertaking coursework to attain teacher certification.
- Allow students who do not have access to college-level courses at their high schools to apply for need-based grants and seek credit at local colleges or community colleges.
- Expand summer learning opportunities for low-income students in K-12 focused on increasing math and problem-solving skills.
- Strengthen the role community colleges play in educating scientists and engineers.
- Expand federal Academic Competitiveness and National Smart Grants to encourage more low-income students to major in STEM fields in college.
- Adopt a rigorous high-school curriculum that requires students to take four years of math and three years of science.
- Give bonuses to teachers for having math and science capability and Advanced Placement credentials.
- Create math and science academies for the best and brightest students.
- Test for engineering skills in science exams.
- Double civilian federal research and development funding over
- Encourage states to designate a specific number of high schools to focus on science and technology.
Jeffrey Selingo is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.