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The Science Unfair

To win the 21st Century's version of the Space Race, we need to start learning (and stop underfunding) science. As our nation celebrated the...

To win the 21st Century's version of the Space Race, we need to start learning (and stop underfunding) science.

As our nation celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing last week, one sad truth went barely mentioned: America has lost its scientific lead. Indeed, if we were running the Space Race on today's scientific landscape, the United States would be stuck on the launch pad. Over the past quarter century, federal funding in the physical sciences has dropped by nearly half as a portion of our gross domestic product. Our students trail their peers in most developed countries-and some developing countries-in math and science. Given our chronic national scientific illiteracy, and without the educational resources to make us global leaders again, our prospects in the great Clean Energy Race of the next few decades aren't all that good."We know that our country is better than this," President Obama told the National Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting a couple months back. He continued:A half century ago, this nation made a commitment to lead the world in scientific and technological innovation; to invest in education, in research, in engineering; to set a goal of reaching space and engaging every citizen in that historic mission. That was the high water mark of America's investment in research and development. And since then our investments have steadily declined as a share of our national income. As a result, other countries are now beginning to pull ahead in the pursuit of this generation's great discoveries.? I believe it is not in our character, the American character, to follow. It's our character to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again.Scientific leadership must begin with science education. Yet according to a 2007 report (pdf) by the joint National Academies, "In South Korea, 38 percent of all undergraduates receive their degrees in natural science or engineering. In France, the figure is 47 percent, in China, 50 percent, and in Singapore 67 percent. In the United States, the corresponding figure is 15 percent." The rest of the world is gearing up to clean our clock on clean energy. It's crucial that we find a way to inspire, educate, and train young Americans in the science and engineering disciplines to tackle these "grand challenges of this century."During his speech, the President announced a new program, RE-ENERGYSE (REgaining our ENERGY Science and Engineering Edge), that would start our climb back to global scientific leadership, particularly on the clean energy front. He asked for $115 million in the Department of Energy's 2010 budget to educate future leaders in energy science and technology. ($80 million would go to higher education for curriculum development, fellowships, post-doc field traineeships and the like; the other $35 million would be devoted to technical training at community colleges and for K-12 science and energy literacy.)According to the DOE's description (pdf), the program would ready between 5,000 and 8,500 highly educated scientists, engineers, and other professionals to enter the clean energy field by 2015, and up to 10,000 to 17,000 professionals by 2020. The technical training subprogram would develop between 200 and 300 community colleges and other training programs "to equip thousands of technically skilled workers for clean energy jobs."Sounds like a good investment. Except the House Appropriations Committee cut funding for RE-ENERGYSE to a mere $7 million and the version to rise from the Senate's committee sliced its funding entirely. Jesse Jenkins and Teryn Norris at the Breakthrough Institute-who proposed a similar, if much more ambitious, National Energy Education Act last summer-partnered with the Association of American Universities and rounded up a group of more than 100 schools, student groups, and nonprofit organizations to jointly submit a letter (pdf) to all senators urging full support of the President's RE-ENERGYSE proposal. Over the phone, Jenkins stressed the urgency-the Energy and Water Appropriations budget will be voted for on the Senate floor as soon as this week.As Obama told the National Academy in April, "The nation that leads the world in 21st century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st century global economy... [RE-ENERGYSE] will prepare a generation of Americans to meet this generational challenge." RE-ENERGYSE is a vital first step for regaining our scientific edge and taking the lead in the clean energy race. It should be fully funded.NOW WHAT? Check out the Breakthrough Institute's press release and call you Senator immediately, telling them to "meet the full budget request for the RE-ENERGYSE program."

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