Editor’s Journal: Don’t Know Much Trigonometry

Editor’s Journal

KEVIN FINNERAN

Don’t Know Much Trigonometry

A new poll revealed that 86% of Americans are aware that China and India are working to produce more workers with technical skills, and only 49% believe that the United States would rank at or near the top of the global economy 20 years from now. In addition, 70% said that general science and math skills would be “very important” for college graduates “in all areas of study in the 21st century,” but only 46% said that students should be required to study more science and math in college. The survey of 1,000 registered voters was conducted by the Winston Group for the American Council on Education.

The same week the poll was released the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, which is devoted to crafting a policy strategy that will not only spur overall economic growth but also expand opportunities for all Americans, presented a panel discussion that included Harold Varmus, Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin, former Compaq CEO Michael Capellas to explain that science and technology are critical to innovation and a healthy economy. Their collective brainpower was hardly necessary to identify the obvious. Few Americans would argue against the need for a strong foundation in science and technology. Where we need insight is in convincing Americans that they need to do something to nurture research and reap the benefits.

The country has developed an effective strategy for building a highly skilled cadre of industry researchers and university faculty. It’s called immigration. Whether this approach will be successful in the future remains to be seen.

Research is necessary but not sufficient to sustain a world-leading economy. Innovation requires a much more complex social fabric to succeed. Scientifically and technologically literate people are needed in courtrooms and elementary school classrooms, in Congress and in statehouses, on factory floors and in customer service centers, in corporate boardrooms and Wall St. financial firms, in nursing homes and in operating rooms. Only when knowledge pervades all aspects of the nation’s life will it be able to mine the full value of breakthroughs achieved at the frontiers of human understanding of the natural world and of humans themselves.

The polling data tell us that we have not yet convinced the general public that knowledge of science and technology should not be the protected domain of the research elite. The awe-inspiring complexity of modern science and engineering is repelling as well as impressing the public. How can anyone be expected to even begin to understand what is well understood by only a handful of people who have devoted their entire lives to study? The challenge for the scientific and engineering community is to identify the body of knowledge that is useful and accessible to the public and to smaller groups of people who have a need for more knowledge in specific areas.

Encouraging signs of new approaches are appearing. New science museums, increasingly sophisticated websites with medical information and research news, and the new professional master’s degree in science are examples of effective innovations. The need is obvious, and the work is clearly unfinished.