BUSINESS leaders and scholars have warned for several years of a coming shortage of scientists and the severe impact it will have on the economy of the United States. But little change in education has resulted from these warnings. This spring, President Bush announced his America 2000 program with the goal of improving America's elementary and secondary schools. And in mid-May, $75 million was awarded to 10 states to develop math and science programs for students from kindergarten through college.
Perhaps these efforts will be a step toward reversing the tide of science illiteracy in the US. They will, however, be only a step because much more is needed to keep America competitive in the world market.
The outlook for the natural sciences is particularly grim. Of the 23,000 high schools in the US, 7,100 do not offer physics; 4,200 do not offer chemistry; and 1,900 do not offer biology. American students score significantly lower on science achievement tests than do students in Japan and Korea, for example.
The problem becomes more critical by the time students move into higher education. The number of merit scholars choosing careers in science and engineering has decreased. The percent of college students initially choosing science and math is about half that of the 1960s. A high percentage of those who begin college science drop out of the program during the first year. The number of bachelor's degrees has accordingly decreased.
While the numbers and quality decrease, the need for scientists, engineers, and mathematicians is predicted to increase. Industry, academia, and government are expected to employ an increasing number of these professionals over the next 20 years. One-fourth of college science and engineering faculty will reach retirement age by 1995.
All of these problems and more have prompted the National Science Foundation to predict that by the year 2006, the US will have a cumulative shortfall of 675,000 persons with bachelor's degrees in natural science and engineering. Similarly, 24,000 new jobs requiring PhDs in these fields will be created annually - with many of them going to foreign students.
Falling interest in the natural sciences parallels declining interest in medicine. The applicant pool for medical schools dropped from about 42,000 in 1974-75 to approximately 26,000 in 1988. Applicants to dental schools are down by about one-half since the mid-1970s; now about 90 percent of applicants are accepted.
To keep America at the forefront of scientific technology, any education plan must include the following initiatives:
First, students' interest, imagination, and enthusiasm for the world about them must be captured. Project 2061, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is attempting to do that. The emphasis is on deciding what students are interested in and then illustrating how they can learn about it. The initial interest may be simple, but when curiosity and excitement are turned on they will most likely intensify with time.
Second, teachers fascinated by the world about them must work with students to help them understand that world. Good teachers, education's most prized possession, should be rewarded accordingly in order to avoid losing them to more "prestigious" and financially rewarding activities.
Third, the general public must learn what science is all about. Currently, there is little support of good science education because parents and many decisionmakers do not recognize its importance. They must understand the role of science in our economy and society in order to recognize the danger presented by a shortage of trained scientists. Science-aware parents may see as much glamor and importance in science for their children as they now see in such fields as medicine and sports.
Fourth, colleges must make science a requirement. Any study in science should result in an appreciation of how science works, its limitations, and how it may affect, positively and negatively, all inhabitants of the earth.
There should also be a quantitative element, which deals with the collection and analysis of data. The general public should be capable of making decisions on scientific matters, such as environmental cleanup, safety in handling chemicals, what to eat or not eat, and why. The public should also understand how scientists come to their conclusions and the validity of such conclusions.
A high-technology economy demands a high investment in science. If Americans want to maintain their standard of living into the next century, now is the time for a commitment to science education.