From Frontier to Terrorism: Toward an Interdisciplinary Assessment of Science Education Policy Making

By Lucena, Juan | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

From Frontier to Terrorism: Toward an Interdisciplinary Assessment of Science Education Policy Making


Lucena, Juan, Philosophy Today


I'm proud of you. We are depending on you to develop the tools we need to lift the dark threat of terrorism for our nation-and for that matter, the world. All of us here today, whether we're scientists or engineers or elected officials, share a great calling. It's an honor to participate in a noble cause that's larger than ourselves.

President George W. Bush

"Anti-Terrorism Technology Key to Homeland security," speech delivered to scientists and engineers at the Argonne National Laboratory on July 2002

President Bush's call for scientists and engineers to save the nation from terrorism was not the only one, nor even the first. Just four months after September 11, 2001, Rita Colwell, Director Of the National Science Foundation (NSF), delivered a speech entitled "Science as Patriotism" at the annual meeting of the Universities Research Association. In her words,

Every discussion, whether it is about airline safety, emerging diseases, failure of communication links, bioterrorism directed at our food and drinking water, assessment of damaged infrastructure, the mind/body response trauma, or a myriad of other concerns, depends on our scientific and technical knowledge. . . . If the science community can be hands-on to inspire young people to a future in science, we would be performing one of the most enduring acts of patriotism for the nation. (Colwell, 2002)

Shortly after Colwell, the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism issued Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism, arguing that

America's historical strength in science and engineering is perhaps its most critical asset in countering terrorism without degrading our quality of life. . . . The nation's ability to perform the needed short- and long-term research and development rests fundamentally on a strong scientific and engineering workforce. Here there is cause for concern, as the number of American students interested in science and engineering careers is declining. (Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, 2002, 23)

Almost immediately program managers at the NSF Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) issued a solicitation titled Approaches to Combat Terrorism (ACT): Opportunities in Basic Research in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences with the Potential to Contribute to National Security, with an expected initial funding of $3.5 million. By June 2003, NSF had funded $20 million worth of exploratory research and education programs dealing with terrorism.

History and Theory

The image of the United States under the threat of terrorism has allowed the President, the NSF Director, and others to issue calls for scientists and engineers to save the nation. Scientists and engineers have responded by creating programs to secure federal funds for education and research, with many colleges and universities developing activities to train students for jobs in homeland defense (Barlett, 2003). Students in turn have enrolled in the relevant science and engineering courses. This entire process, from the emergence of images of the nation under threat, to the creation of a discourse about saving the nation with science and technology and the development of federally-funded programs to educate scientists and engineers, constitutes policymaking to create scientists and engineers.

But this process and its ideology, that science education is necessary to national strength, are not new. All that has changed in recent rhetoric is the image of the nation under terrorist threat, the particular actors issuing the calls, the content of their discourse, and the specific characteristics desired in scientists and engineers. The policymaking process-from the emergence of an image and its associated discourse to the struggle of actors for budget allocations and the creation of programs-has remained strikingly consistent for at least the last half century. …

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