The State of Our Science-and-Technology Union

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. But the surplus generated by trade in advanced-technology products has declined every year since 1991. In aerospace alone, the surplus declined by 13 percent in 1993 and 9 percent in 1994 - a drop of nearly one-fourth in just two years.

But the news is not all bad, and certain trends point the way to greater success. We are witnessing an unprecedented level of cooperation among universities, industry, and government, domestically and internationally.

*Industry and university scientists and engineers are collaborating at record rates. Today, nearly half of the journal articles published by industry researchers are co-authored with academics - up from less than one-third 15 years ago.

*This commitment to cooperation is also evident at our national laboratories, where the number of cooperative agreements with private industry has increased nine-fold since 1987.

*International cooperation is also on the rise: In 1993, half of all research-journal articles worldwide had multiple authors, and about one-quarter of these involved coauthorship across national boundaries. Moreover, international industrial research partnerships have sharply increased - from 136 high-tech international R&D alliances in 1980 to 489 in 1994.

This commitment to cooperation, collaboration, and reaching out may be the key to the future success of American science and engineering.

Precollege education is a case in point. Some of the most successful efforts have been NSF's investments in systemic educational reforms. These bring together universities, corporations, and state and local governments in partnerships to improve mathematics and science education at the precollege level. Thanks in large part to these joint efforts, high school graduates today are completing substantially more mathematics and science courses than in the early 1980s.

The challenge is to build on this spirit of cooperation. For starters, scientists and engineers must reach out and remove the mystery surrounding their work. In addition, leaders and policymakers in all sectors must support the investments necessary to secure America's future as a leader in science and technology.

It's not really about failing an occasional pop quiz. In the final analysis, our great nation's ability to thrive and prosper in the 21st century is at stake.

* Cora B. Marrett is assistant director for social, behavioral, and economic sciences at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

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