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Commentary: Dropping back in the science race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 7, 2009 - For years, the University of California at Berkeley was the most common undergraduate alma mater for people who got PhDs from American universities. But with science leading the transformation, the National Science Foundation says that Tsonghua University in Beijing overtook Berkeley in 2006. The second and fourth place institutions are also Asian.

In a world of economic meltdown and a smorgasbord of conflict, increasing dependence on foreign brain power is not the stuff of headlines. But the long-term implications are profound.

The training of American scientists is compromised by broadly articulated limitations in high school; by exorbitant college tuition that requires debt repayment and that push students toward higher-paying professions. Undergraduates tending toward science reflect upon the faculty rat race for sparse grant money and wonder if it's worth the demanding years of training.

So, we are the world leader in lawyers per capita as we look increasingly overseas for our scientists. The NSF reports that nearly 40 percent of U.S.-awarded science and engineering doctorates went to foreign nationals between 1989 and 2003, that the European Union produces twice as many engineering doctorates per capita as we do.

My non-clinical division at the Washington University School of Medicine has 12 faculty members. Eight were born in Asia. Three of the four Americans will retire within a decade. More than half of our faculty applicants are Chinese and 70 to 80 percent are foreign born.

These are honored colleagues and brilliant scientists, and it is shameful that growing visa restrictions make it increasingly difficult for them to remain in the United States. But independent of such restrictions, Chinese students will be inclined to stay at home as their graduate schools become globally competitive. If we do not act, that inevitable day could cripple our global leadership in research and innovation. It could decimate critical scientific disciplines as surely as a Chinese financial withdrawal could decimate our economy.

But we are mired in complacency. We invented the Internet but trail the top 10 nations in broadband access. Federal GDP-adjusted investment in research and development is half its 1960s peak value. In the last decade, the funding rate for grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health has been cut more than in half. Today, we grant reviewers have discussions like: "Good application. Highly qualified researchers. Substantial public health significance. Too bad it won't be funded."

We cannot reverse the trends if we underfund research while low salaries discourage teaching careers, if we wait passively as Chinese graduate schools become world class. We cannot reverse the trends if we maintain endless subsidies for the energy sources of yesterday while the innovators of tomorrow fight for every dollar and seek mostly to survive.

A standard for determined action was our response to Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that began the space race in 1957. Sputnik was our greatest national shock since Pearl Harbor. Could our feared adversary be ahead in science and technology? The military implications were obvious.

President Eisenhower was a budget hawk who viewed training scientists and engineers as "the most critical need of all." Sputnik led quickly to NASA, the National Defense Education Act and national upgrades in science curricula. Between 1958 and 1964, federal support for education and scientific research increased annually by 21 percent to 33 percent. We surpassed the Soviets in nearly every key technology.

But the thousands of Sputnik-created scientists are retired or soon to retire. They must be replaced by the best America can produce. President Obama is off to a promising start with money to retain recession-threatened teachers and for research on multiple fronts from energy innovation to the NIH and the National Science Foundation. There are Pell grants for college students and merit pay for teachers.

But it will be a vast missed opportunity if these efforts become two-year recession fighting stopgaps. Between 1998 and 2003, Congress doubled the NIH budget. But before the altar of small government and large tax cuts, that doubling presaged crippling subsequent decreases. The result is shuttered laboratories and vital research that is not being pursued. Similarly tentative commitments have given us second-tier status in the seminal job creating technology of the new century: renewable energy.

We must not repeat these mistakes and resume business as usual when the two-year stimulus is history. From renewable energy to biotechnology and nanotechnology, our economic future requires that we train and sustainably support the innovators of the new century, the American innovators.

Ken Schechtman is a freelance writer and a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine. 

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