Wake-Up Call Challenges US to Fulfill Science Potential

By

THIRTY-FIVE years ago this Sunday, the world changed. A small satellite circled Earth to open a new age of space-based adventure, exploration, and practical development.

Because it came from what was then the Soviet Union, its beeping radio signal was also a wake-up call for the United States. It was time to focus American educational, scientific, and engineering resources on a clear set of national goals.

Now the world has changed again. And once again that wake-up call is sounding. It rings loudly in a report that the New York-based Carnegie Corporation's Commission on Science, Technology, and Government is releasing today.

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This time the challenge comes not from cold-war competition but from economic competition. It comes not because the US thinks it lags behind a foreign foe technologically but because the country is failing to fulfill its own potential. Scatter-fire pursuit of short-term goals dissipates its inherent science and technology (S&T) strengths. This myoptic fixation neglects problems at home and fails to adequately meet economic competition from abroad.

"As a nation, we need to turn our attention to the long term to try to relate scientific and technological innovations to societal goals," says David Hamburg, Carnegie Corporation president. He adds that "science and technology are now fundamental to modern life, and new technologies and advances in basic science are essential to the continued strength and progress of American society."

Picking up this theme, the commission report says that "we badly need a focusing of national attention and resolve." It warns that, without it, "the problems of recent years - such as the loss of technological and commercial advantages to other nations, or our continuing dependence on foreign energy supplies - could prove irreversible." Yet it adds that, by emphasizing long-term S&T goals and and focusing the country's inherent strengths on those goals, "we may be able to achieve a new age of vitality and leadership in the world community."

This is not a parochial challenge. The report notes: "It is important to recognize the role of international cooperation and development in government decision making ... the distinction between `domestic' and `foreign' goals is obsolete in the face of the explosion of global technology, information, capital, and people."

The congressional House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology sounds a similar wake-up call in the recent report of its task force on the health of American research. It notes that "there is a widespread perception that the federally funded research system is under stress." It adds that "research policy designed 40 years ago may no longer be suitable for addressing the problems of today's world."

For scientists and engineers doing the research, this stress shows up as inadequate funding and a shift of emphasis from basic research to short-term projects with a preconceived payoff.

Neither report claims to have the solution to this crisis. The Carnegie Commission recommends measures to open a national forum to define appropriate long-term goals and ways of meeting them. The House committee outlines its plans for a similar review within the scope of the Congress.

This is a major national concern. You don't hear much about it from the presidential candidates this year. But whoever takes office in January will find it on his plate. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30122.

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