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America Needs More Scientists and Engineers

Slate's going to figure out how to get them. And you, dear reader, are going to help us.

Joanne Thambyah
America needs more scientists. How can we get them?

Photo by Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images.

When I was a college freshman in 1988—back when there were nine planets but no Web—I dropped by the office hours of my professor E.O. Wilson. Wilson was—and is—one of the greatest scientists in the world, but his evolutionary biology lecture class was a beloved gut course, an easy and delightful way for humanities majors to fulfill their science requirement. Eager and freshmanly, I told Wilson that I was an aspiring doctor or scientist and asked him for academic counsel. Wilson was kind and generous with the advice. If I wanted to go into science, he said, I needed to devote myself to a discipline now. “First specialize,” he said. “Then later, after you’ve specialized, you can become a generalist.”

It was the best advice I never followed. To specialize at age 18, I would need to drop my writing seminar for chemistry or physics courses with tons of homework and fearsome lab projects. I preferred reading novels and arguing about first principles. So I ducked organic chemistry for economics, real science for social science—another doctor or engineer or microbiologist lost to America. I wouldn’t have been a great scientist, but I might have been a good one.

America needs Thomas Edisons and Craig Venters, but it really needs a lot more good scientists, more competent scientists, even more mediocre scientists.

In theory, nerdiness has never been cooler. America sanctifies Steve Jobs and envies Mark Zuckerberg. There are hipster chemists, hipster roboticists, hipster astronomers. There is TED, an entire industry devoted to cool-hunting technology and science. And yet, American science is in crisis. In 2010, only 4.9 percent of American jobs were in science and engineering, down from 5.3 percent in 2000—the first such decline since 1950. Recent studies, including this one, warn that we’re falling behind the rest of the world in innovation and education. Science test scores are stagnant, and a majority of American eighth-graders score below proficiency. U.S. companies are building factories overseas because they can’t hire enough competent engineers at home. And many of our best mathematical and scientific minds are snatched up by Wall Street: Instead of paying smart kids reasonable wages to design drugs and engineer cars that benefit almost everyone, we’re paying them unreasonable wages to develop financial models that benefit almost no one.

Maddie McLean, 7, a home schooling student curiously observes a caterpillar for a science lesson at her farm home April 22, 2004 in Shreveport, Louisiana
A student examines a caterpillar

Photo by Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images.

America’s post-World War II success—the most glorious half-century of economic prosperity in the history of the world—came about largely because of our success in the sciences. President Obama says we are facing a new “Sputnik moment.” But if this is Sputnik, how can we repeat the success of 50 years ago? How can we educate more and better scientists and engineers? How can we make science and math enticing to kids? How can we make sure that college students don’t flee labs like I did? How can we persuade kids with scientific inclinations to stay in the sciences? And how can we teach basic science literacy to non-scientists, so they can have a voice in public discussion about cutting-edge technologies and discoveries?

There are green shoots. Code Academy and Code for America are trying to train up thousands of Americans—not all of them young—in the basics of writing code. The Make movement and Maker Faires are igniting interest in do-it-yourself science. (I’m an acolyte. Inspired by a Future Tense conference about the Maker movement, I’ve spent the last three months building electronics projects with my kids, as much for my delight as for their education.)

Inspiring the next generation of inventors, healers, and builders is perhaps the single most important public policy question of our time, which is why Slate will spend the month of June full-court-pressing it. We will tackle why science education is lagging and how we can, and must, improve it. Successful scientists will write about what turned them on to science. We’ll offer new methods for how to teach science and math. We’ll focus on how to keep girls interested in science. We’ll ask whether standardized tests inspire or demoralize potential scientists. We’ll look at how other countries teach science and figure out which of their ideas we should steal.

And, most importantly, we’ll collect your best ideas for how to improve American science education. If you’ve got a notion—an Edisonian light bulb above your head—for how American can mint more scientists, submit your great idea here. We’ll be publicizing the most provocative and promising ideas at the end of the month.

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