As part of the $388 billion spending bill approved last month, Congress voted to cut funding for the National Science Foundation, long a pillar of basic scientific research and technological innovation.
The cuts are terribly shortsighted and run counter to Congress' own decision two years ago to double the science foundation's budget by 2007. The agency will get $5.5 billion this fiscal year, or $105 million less than it did last year. When adjusted for inflation, the real loss in funding is nearly triple that figure. The 2005 appropriation is also $272 million less than President Bush requested.
The science foundation has a long track record of financing research efforts that have led to innovations ranging from the Internet browser and the Google search engine to breakthroughs in nanotechnology and biomedical applications. As jobs based on older or simpler technology increasingly migrate overseas, the economic health of Silicon Valley and the nation depends on innovations and industries that will be built on such research.
What's more, without a renewed commitment to funding basic and technology research, America's leadership in science and technology is certain to slip even further. Already, the proportion of Americans winning scientific prizes or publishing breakthrough research in international journals is declining. The American share of industrial patents has also dropped steadily in recent years.
Looks like science will have to get some of its money in the form of defense. BizJournals.com:
Want a piece of the federal government's R&D pie?
Your best bet is at the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security, which received big boosts in their research and development budgets. Congress increased the Department of Defense's R&D budget by 7 percent to a record $70 billion this year. Homeland security R&D got a 20 percent increase to $1.2 billion...
The association projects that 21 out of the 24 agencies that sponsor R&D will experience budget cuts in real dollars over the next five years. Defense, Homeland Security and NASA will be the only agencies to keep pace with inflation, it predicts.
Update, December 7, 2004. It's bad enough that the National Science Foundation is slowly being starved -- that alone will almost certainly thin the pipeline of innovations from the United States in the coming decade. Far more frightening a prospect is the longer-term implication of the Wall Street Journal piece by June Kronholz on page B1 titled Economic Time Bomb: U.S. Teens Are Among Worst at Math, which breaks the news that 15-year-olds in the U.S. rank near the bottom of industrialized countries in math skills -- which will likely thin the pipeline of innovations from the United States for decades to come.
Two of the study's most unsettling findings: The percentage of top-achieving math students in the nation is about half that of other industrialized countries, and the gap between scores of whites and minority groups -- who will make up an increasing share of the labor force in coming decades -- is enormous.
The U.S. ranked 24th among 29 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsored the study. Using the OECD's adjusted average score of 500 points, the U.S. scored 483 -- 61 points behind top-scoring Finland and 51 points behind Japan. In a wider group that also included 10 nonmembers, many of them developing nations, the U.S. tied Latvia for 27th place. The bad news is likely to be repeated next week with the expected release of another international math comparison. The U.S. scored near the bottom of that survey, the Trends in International Math and Science Survey, or Timss, when it was conducted four years ago.
In the test given last year, most of the teenagers were in ninth and 10th grade. Their poor showing is expected to provide fodder for President Bush, who wants to include high schoolers in his No Child Left Behind education program. That idea is likely to face stiff opposition from some members of Congress and many state legislators, who oppose any further expansion of the federal government's role in education.
But the PISA study holds such potentially bad news for the U.S. economy that Mr. Bush might find it provides him with plenty of ammunition. The study suggests that there aren't nearly as many bright kids in U.S. schools as there are in other countries -- which could undermine U.S. dominance in technology-related fields. On average, about 4% of kids who took the test scored at the top of a six-point scale; in the U.S., only 2% scored at the top.
The study also indicated that huge numbers of U.S. students can barely do math, meaning the U.S. lacks the advantage of a generally well-educated population, which also can spur growth. One-quarter of the U.S. 15-year-olds scored at either the bottom rung or, worse, scored so low that they didn't even make that level. White and Asian youngsters in the U.S. scored above the international average, but Hispanics averaged 443 on the exam and blacks scored 417.
Those generally low-scoring groups, because of population trends, are becoming an increasing share of the labor market. "It's their productivity that will determine economic growth and whether my generation gets Social Security," says Harvard University economist Richard Murnane.
Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist, estimates that trailing other OECD countries on education measures may reduce U.S. economic growth by as much as a half percentage point a year. That drag will become increasingly apparent, he said, as other countries dismantle regulatory obstacles and alter tax laws that put them at a disadvantage. "It's a big deal, it really is," he said of the OECD math study.
The study comes as math scores on the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams are up slightly, and math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders were up on the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress last year. The gains tend to convince policy makers that math education is heading in the right direction. But Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution education researcher, says U.S. scores are improving because the tests are too easy. In a report last month, he found that eighth-graders aren't tested on fractions and percentages, for example.
And even as entrance-exam scores improve, 17% of students at public four-year colleges currently take remedial math courses before they begin work on their degree. That means colleges are filling in the education holes left by U.S. high schools. "We've made up for weak high schools with better colleges, and we may be able to continue to play that out," says Mr. Murnane. "But maybe not."
Already, U.S. employers rely heavily on foreign applicants to fill high-tech jobs. But immigration restrictions and improving economies at home have recently made the U.S. a less-desirable place for high-skilled foreigners to work.
U.S. education officials offered few explanations for the poor U.S. showing. But Eugene Hickok, the outgoing deputy secretary of education, said poor teacher training may be high among the reasons. And teaching's low status discourages math graduates from going into the field.
This news is significant to America's long-term economic growth prospects. One of the key problems here is that culturally, the United States no longer values science and mathematics the way we as a society did during the Cold War when it was of National Security interest to make sure we stayed a step ahead in the Arms Race and the Space Race.
In November 2004, a majority of our culture voted resoundingly to continue to embrace the values of our faith-based presidency that (by means of No Child Left Behind) aims to train our average-to-best children to take tests and drop everyone else out, rather than teach all of our students to understand and appreciate the nuances embodied in the kind of exploration that values the process of actually learning science and the scientific method.
How can it be the case that even with ever-improved living standards and ever-more-empowering learning tools, America's children as a group continue to decline in absolute knowledge compared with the rest of the world? Does valuing faith have to happen to the detriment of valuing science? For the sake of our country's long-term economic prospects, I sincerely hope not.