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Backstory: The Pentagon goes Hollywood

It funds a program to turn scientists into screenwriters, hoping to lure more young people into the sciences.

By Frank KosaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2007



LOS ANGELES

If it were up to Martin Gundersen, Robert Barker, and Alex Singer, the next Hollywood blockbuster script would read something like this: INTERIOR LAB – DAY OR NIGHT (WHO CAN EVER TELL IN THESE PLACES?)

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Strains of Chopin float through a science lab. An intense woman in a white smock – let's call her something heroic like DIANA CURIE (picture Beyoncé or Penelope Cruz) – is about to fire a round of argon from her nanoparticle gun. Suddenly, her beeping phone pierces the calm. She flips it open – a red "S" flashes on the screen. She drops the gun and dashes to the door.

CUT TO: INTERIOR OFFICE – NIGHT

Curie glances around furtively. She takes off her glasses and quickly unbuttons her lab coat to reveal blue tights emblazoned with a giant red "S" ... followed by the letters "c-i-e-n-c-e."

Now in her superhero costume, she goes to the window, dons an antigravity pack, and flies off to save the world – once again – for Truth, Justice, and the American Scientific Way....

We'll leave the rest of the screenplay to William Goldman because you're probably getting the point by now. However exaggerated the above confection may be, the triumvirate of Messrs. Gundersen, Barker, and Singer is serious about getting science – and scientific heroes – into the movies. In fact, they see it as vital to the health of American technological prowess, to say nothing of national security.

So what they've done for the past three years is convene a three-to-five-day screenwriting class at the venerated American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Called the Catalyst Workshop, it's a lot like other screenwriting classes that have become a cottage industry across the nation. But here's the twist – all participants in this one are actually scientists. Hardcore, PhD-laden, lab-certified scientists. Here's the second twist – the training was all paid for by the Pentagon.

These screenwriting classes are indeed your Department of Defense tax dollars at work. Egregious example of DOD waste? Some bizarre recruiting promise? The cinematic equivalent of $700 toilet seats? Actually, it's the Pentagon's way of trying to enhance the nation's science-and-technology adroitness.

***

America, it turns out, is suffering from a science and engineering shortage. Students are bypassing the sciences for sexier and more lucrative jobs in law, venture capital, and competitions to be on "American Idol." That means, in addition to national deficits in sleep, fitness, and the federal budget, we have a dearth of particle physicists and electromechanical engineers.

This creates something of a national security problem: Labs that perform classified research are required to hire US citizens. According to Dr. Barker, who works in the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, those who manage the national labs and others who conduct sensitive research have been saying for years "how hard it is to find qualified graduate students who are US citizens."

Then there's the challenge of remaining competitive in the world. Barker notes that 50 percent of America's scientific-and-engineering workforce will be eligible to retire in the next five years. Who's going to replace them?

Finally, there's the issue of science illiteracy. One of the participants in the Catalyst Worshop, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, a materials physicist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, cites a recent survey showing that 30 percent of the American public is still under the impression that the sun orbits around the earth.

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