Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The State of Our Science-and-Technology Union

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The State of Our Science-and-Technology Union

Article excerpt

Here's a multiple choice quiz.

Americans today are:

a. As interested in science and technology as ever.

b. As uninformed about science and technology as ever.

c. As supportive of science and technology as ever.

d. As skeptical of science and technology as ever.

e. All of the above.

Answer: e. Surprised? That's understandable. Concerned? You should be, and so should the scientific community and policymakers in government and industry.

Two decades' worth of national surveys reveal that people know less and less about the science and technology that more and more shape their lives. Left unchecked, this growing discrepancy could prevent the scientific achievements that propel so much of our economic prosperity and social progress.

The National Science Board (the governing board of the National Science Foundation) just released the 1996 edition of its biennial report, Science and Engineering Indicators. The report tracks hundreds of trends and vital statistics relevant to the nation's science and engineering enterprise. It should serve as a wake-up call.

For starters, we may be "flunking science" as a nation. On a recent survey conducted for the indicators report, respondents correctly answered only 5 out of 10 questions about scientific knowledge. Batting .500 may be great in baseball, but here it is cause for concern. Despite recent discussions of genetics in widely publicized court trials and elsewhere, only 1 in 5 Americans can provide a minimally acceptable definition of DNA. And, despite substantial media attention to deep-space probes, comets, and astronomy in general, only 49 percent of Americans know that the Earth rotates around the sun once each year.

There are numerous other areas where we may not deserve a passing grade. For example, while the United States still spends more dollars on nondefense research and development than any other nation, Japan and Germany invest proportionately more of their economies. Japan's percentage of the gross domestic product invested in nondefense R&D exceeds the US percentage by one-third; Germany's exceeds the US by one-fifth. In addition, American R&D spending is not keeping pace with inflation. Between 1990 and 1995, total US public and private spending for R&D declined by an estimated 2 percent in real dollars.

Is it any wonder that US technological leadership has declined in many areas? A key indicator of this is trade in advanced-technology products. Several areas, including aerospace, computer-integrated manufacturing, life science, and computer software, produce sizable trade surpluses for the US. …

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