The Future of Science in America

This is an article I had originally written for a Seed Magazine science writing competition, but I missed the deadline.  Well, turns out it was almost done.  So I just wrapped it up and I’m putting it out here.

Science is more important in our lives than ever before. We use produces created from scientific discoveries every day. And scientific issues are always in the news. Our economy is driven largely by scientific businesses: biotech, information technology, energy. The rate of scientific development in America, and the world, has rocketed. The last few decades have seen unprecedented numbers of scientific and technological advances, and there is no sign it will be slowing down any time soon.

However, the future also shows some ominous signs. As a leader of scientific innovation, America is seeing great competition from India and China. Their children are more adept in math and science than ours (although that in itself is not difficult to achieve), and they graduate more PhDs in science and engineering than we do. Finally, the future will hold greate challenges, many of them created by the scientific and technological advances of the last century. Climate change, energy shortage, epidemics, terrorism. It is clear that science in all its forms will be critical to America’s future.

It seems to me that many of the troubles the scientific community faces (shortage of money, people, respect) could be solved through a simple, yet startling and possibly controversial idea.

We (the American public) need to treat science more like the military.

Now before you say anything, hear me out. Here’s why science needs to be treated more like the military. Read the first sentence of each of these next paragraphs normally, then read them again and substitute “the military” for “science”.

Serving in the military is akin to serving your country. We have established that science will be critical to America’s future. People need to understand that scientists aren’t simply conducting experiments to answer isoteric questions about the universe, (although some do), but they are doing work that is helping this country grow stronger. Don’t you think that that alone would give scientists much more respect?

You are not in the military forever. Science should also not be seen as a be all end all as a career. Many people have worked years as a scientists and then moved onto other fields: teaching comes to mind, but also business, writing and law or politics. Science should be seen as something that you can dedicate a few years to or a few decades to.

The military gives you skills for life. In the same way, people have to see that working in sciences gives you incredible skills – self-discipline, meticulousness, creativity, the ability to synthesize ideas, work in teams and work under pressure. These skills can translate over to many other fields. Time spent in science is worth spending.

The military can show you the world. Even if you don’t travel anywhere, science can show people a whole new world that is right under their eyes, or in every part of their lives. Science illuminates and reveals the mysteries of the universe.

Do you see where this is going? I think that science needs to be taken more seriously and made more accessible, the way the military is. Now how are we going to do this? My three step program.

1) A massive public awareness campaign. This is going to cost a good amount of money, but I think it is worth it. I’m talking splashy, sexy, bold television spots, celebrity endorsements, billboards, weblogs, bracelets, the whole 9 yards. This is a total change in the perception of science so it needs to really get out there.  The military is pretty good at this.  (Army of One.  Navy – accelerate your life.  The few, the proud, the Marines).

2) A change in the way we train and deploy scientists. This requires coordination between education, government and businesses. I see young people enrolling in a Science Corps boot camp, serving time (maybe a 2 year commitment at a lab on a certain assignment) and they’d be on the way to a PhD.  They could also go down to Reserve, where they could be called to duty for a few weeks out of a year.

3) Get more scientists and Science Corps members into government, so that our country will be lead by people who understand what is going on.  As we have established, science is going to become more advanced and become more interconnected with society.  Policy makers need to have a grip on the issues.  Also, the Science Corps program will fail without having members in government positions.  Think about how many politicians have military backgrounds. With science-educated leaders in place, America will be in a better position to lead the world.  Hopefully in a safe and ethical manner.

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11 comments
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yellowj
yellowj

I love how you guys are talking through this post. It's great.

Mack
Mack

Sorry I didn't write sooner. Plato's "The Republic" is the most complete resource if you're interested, but this website gives a decent synopsis of his perfect society: http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/2h.htm.

I have asked my friend for a source on how Singapore's society mirrors it and am waiting for a response.

Jamie Northrup
Jamie Northrup

I'm not familiar with Singapore's education system nor Plato's perfect society, to be honest. Please enlighten me.

Mack
Mack

Your point about adolescent specialization is an interesting one. Singapore is the best example, I think, of the perfect society Plato describes. Name a metric by which the success of a society can be measured and you find that Singapore is nearly always ranked at the top by a fairly large margin.

Here's the prime minister of Singapore who was brought up to be the leader of the nation.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/3556982.stm

Mack
Mack

Off topic: Jamie, I haven't spoken to you in years.

Jamie Northrup
Jamie Northrup

That is a good point that I will not deny that the military academies teach the sciences extremely well. Nonetheless, my objections still apply.

Mack
Mack

Would examining the success of current military funded research be of any use? I assume that your definition of science would include military science as well, so why not take a look at how research being conducted by the military, for example Air Force Research Labs (AFRL), compares to other private companies?

Jamie Northrup
Jamie Northrup

Great article, however, I have several objections.

First, there are inherent problems with a military based system in general. "Group Think" comes to mind as a well-documented feature in the military that would not benefit scientific research. Attempts to eliminate this element would greatly diminish the powerful impact military service has on impressionable youth. I wonder how efficient a military based science program would address this significant problem.

Secondly, the military has a strong image on which it was building with its commercial campaign. One that has an audience that is susceptible to the propaganda they spew. Treating scientific education with the same paintbrush would inevitably be insulting at best.

Finally, balance in education is really the most important feature of the American education system. More authoritarian governments have implemented programs similar to the idea you suggest, whereby young adolescents specialize early in life, study incredibly hard, and learn their subjects proficiently. The problems they find are that these individuals are lacking in many ways. Their ability to practically apply new ideas, their social and communication skills are often deficient. An overemphasis in science also develops binary thought patterns, those who lack a liberal arts education are unable to see shades of gray in arguments. A unique perspective is developed in a diverse environment that would be unattainable in a military-type science program. Your final thought, "Hopefully in a safe and ethical manner," summarizes my thoughts exactly.

As a final thought, I would like to repeat a cliché, "Quality, not quantity." Our goal rather than producing a multitude of scientists should be to foster those who are most promising and develop an education system where their interests would be nurtured from a young age in conjunction with a liberal arts background.

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