Saturday, November 15, 2008

Science education - we're doing it wrong

As a fan of all that is sciencey (not a word, I know), I feel fortunate to live in what is considered the most scientifically advanced society that has ever existed. However, I think there is a distinct movement in the US away from science as part of the foundation of our worldview.  Whether you're talking about the introduction of non-science into the science classroom or the backlash against "elite" university-educated leaders, knowledge-seeking and rationality seems to be in decline.

I want to give you a frightening example of where this attitude is leading. produces cartograms of the world based on specific data.  So instead of a country's size on the map being based on physical landmass, it is based on its ranking within a particular data set.  In their own words:
'The maps presented on this website are equal area cartograms, otherwise known as density-equalising maps. The cartogram re-sizes each territory according to the variable being mapped.' 
The particular cartogram below

'...shows the growth in scientific research of territories between 1990 and 2001. If there was no increase in scientific publications that territory has no area on the map.

In 1990, 80 scientific papers were published per million people living in the world, this increased to 106 per million by 2001. This increase was experienced primarily in territories with strong existing scientific research. However, the United States, with the highest total publications in 2001, experienced a smaller increase since 1990 than that in Japan, China, Germany and the Republic of Korea. Singapore had the greatest per person increase in scientific publications.'

© Copyright 2006 SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan).

As you can easily see, the US (we're the small, purple part on the left) is growing more slowly than both the EU and Asia in terms of scientific research publication.  You might be saying to yourself, " Nice map, but who cares?"  We should all care.  The US has been slowing moving away from it's traditional manufacturing roots for decades.  All you have to do is look at cities like Gary, Indiana, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or numerous other rust belt cities to know that.  One area that has been a growth engine is biotech.  Companies like Amgen, Genentech, and Chiron to name a few helped to kick off a vibrant and dynamic industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people across the country in high-paying jobs.  Their partnerships with universities large and small provide critical funding for research and help to commercialize breakthroughs that might otherwise languish in lab notebooks when the researcher is unable (or unwilling) to find the capital necessary to bring it to market.  The fundamental driver for all of this is basic research.  I'm not talking about the big, well-known, sexy research projects like to human genome project or the LHC (which is in Europe).  I mean that post-doc in a basement microbio lab of a state university where the lab benches are quite literally covered with instruments, incubators, and water baths and there's always a funky odor that's a cross between autoclaved TSB and some kind of alcohol.  These are the people who work for next to nothing on bioremediation by common soil organisms or quorum signaling by pathogenic E. coli.  And the culmination of their research is, FSM willing, a publication.  That's it.  If it's a good journal, it might help get a grant to keep their project going another year or so.  Those publications are where we are falling behind, according to the cartogram above.

If this type of research continues moving out of the US, there will be dire consequences.  Singapore is leading the way.  Their culture emphasizes a strong, disciplined focus on science and it is reaping rewards.  Their rate of publication is growing faster than ours.  Their government is giving heavy tax incentives to biotech companies who move operations to Singapore, and companies are taking them up on that.  In fact, the government of Singapore has invested billions in research and development campuses where academia and industry can collaborate on cutting edge technologies.  

We need to wake up.  Investment in science education must be a priority.  The past eight years have been a drought and we desperately need a downpour.  If you want jobs to replace the millions that will be lost when the auto industry collapses, look to the biotech and tech sector.  Write your congressperson or senator and let them know that you expect a change in direction, that you are tired of being told that our consumer culture will save our economy, and that you will be watching their actions closely.

Be well,



Shawn Michel de Montaigne said...

Couldn't agree more.

As a teacher, the brain-drain on this nation is startling, even terrifying. Harvard University is now shopping for top-flight Asian students! What does that tell you?

Obama is solid science. I'm excited for the turnaround he'll press on us. It's a good thing. But anti-intellectualism is at an all-time high in this nation; and I fear that it won't be abating anytime soon.


ScottE said...

I think Obama will be good for science based on his Science Debate 2008 answers. I'm keeping an eye on him nonetheless.