In Our View: Investment in Science Pays

Americans would do well to maintain our history of nurturing innovation



Americans love science. Well, at least we like science. Er, maybe we just like to talk about the importance of science. Science, after all, has led to technological advances that make our everyday lives more manageable (smart phones, for example) and more enjoyable (high-definition TV). Science is what landed people on the moon. Science helps create growing economies. Science carries hope for further advancements that will allow humans to live more harmoniously with the world around us.

So it is with much interest that we viewed an article by William H. Press from the University of Texas in the latest edition of a trade journal named “Science” (what else would it be called?). Press is a scientist at the university, in case you hadn’t guessed that by now.

Press notes that the United States is among the world leaders as far as science spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, and the number of scientists per capita. Because the United States has by far the world’s largest economy, it spends the most on scientific research — more than $70 billion in 2011. But as far as percentages go, the U.S. isn’t near the top. Finland has the most scientists per capita and ranks second in spending as a percentage of GDP, just behind Israel. The U.S. ranks in a group with technology leaders such as Germany, Japan, Korea, and the Scandinavian countries in both categories.

So, Americans still like science. But one of the most interesting parts of the study is how that like has manifested itself over the past 50 years. In the mid-1960s, at the height of the Space Race and love of all things scientific in this country, federal spending on science equaled almost 2 percent of GDP. That steadily dropped until it was well under 1 percent of GDP in 2000, and has risen to about 1 percent of GDP now.

All of this has taken a toll on our would-be future scientists. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2011-12 ranked the United States 52nd in the quality of mathematics and science education, and fifth in overall global competitiveness in the sciences. The U.S. ranked 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering, and more than two-thirds of the engineers receiving a Ph.D. from U.S. universities were not American citizens.

None of this is particularly new. Many reports in recent years have highlighted how American students are falling behind in science, and the efforts of local schools to combat those shortcomings reflect changes being made throughout the nation. In the fall of 2012, Vancouver Public Schools launched iTech Preparatory, a school devoted to STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — education. This year, Evergreen Public Schools opened Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School. Other local programs, as well, have been dedicated to strengthening science-related education.

Such education is crucial, particularly in a quickly changing global economy, because scientific research is an investment. As Press, the scientist, wrote in his article for “Science”: “Basic research needs to grow at least as fast as the economy because it is part of the feedback loop for most of the economy’s growth.” Or, as a nonscientist might put it, scientific development and science education will pay dividends through advancements that enhance the economy. Hopefully, Americans can fall in love with science all over again.