NAS Report sounds education alarm

Jan. 15, 2006
In The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill described “the step-by-step decline” into the Second World War.

WASHINGTON, DC - In The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill described “the step-by-step decline” into the Second World War. Churchill’s stated purpose in The Gathering Storm was “to show how easily the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented.”1

In issuing Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future late last year, the National Academies of Science (NAS; Washington, D.C.) titled the report with Churchill’s metaphor to sound an alarm, according to Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Nobel Laureate for achievements in the optical sciences.2 In Churchill’s time, as now, a storm was brewing but “people were viewing it and not doing anything,” said Chu, also a member of the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century that authored the NAS report.

The Gathering Storm committee, unlike any NAS study so far, was composed of 1/3 corporate CEOs, 1/3 educational leaders, and 1/3 prominent scientists. When asked how the United States might enhance the science and technology enterprise for continued prosperity and security in a global economy that has already begun to have deeply disturbing impacts on the U.S. economy and way of life, the committee members felt that the answer was a “no-brainer”: The nation’s intellectual capital, particularly in science and technology, needs developing, with a particular emphasis on the physical sciences.

This committee and report were also unusual for the NAS, Chu said, because once the report was written, many of the committee members worked to bring the conclusions to the attention of people in positions of responsibility in Congress and the Administration. The fact that CEOs and former CEOs, particularly of Fortune 100 corporations, were working hard to sell the report for the good of the country gave it more credibility than similar efforts by scientists, which would have been seen as self serving.

Others point out that a major value of the report lies in the visibility and support that it provides for similar efforts in the scientific, business, and educational communities that have been under way for a number of years, such as Science Education Policies for Sustainable Reform, prepared by the American Chemical Society, and Tapping America’s Potential prepared by the Business Round Table, the National Association of Manufacturers, and 13 other organizations.

“We were very pleased to see the Gathering Storm report. It was a great validation of the approach we took in addressing innovation and competitiveness issues,” said Jack Finn, spokesperson for Senator John Ensign (R-NV) who co-sponsored the Ensign-Lieberman “National Innovation Act” last December based on the Innovate America report, issued in December 2004. “There have been several reports done on these issues and they have all have underscored the critical importance of the United States taking action to ensure we remain competitive in this increasingly global marketplace.”

A good bit of new legislation is being proposed, based entirely or in part on the NAS report, including two bills introduced last December by Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN): The 10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds Science and Scholarship Act (HR 4434) that establishes programs at the National Science Foundation to implement the majority of the K-12 science education recommendations put forth in the NAS report; and The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy Act (HR 4435) that establishes an agency (ARPA-E) within the U.S. Department of Energy, modeled after the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with a goal of reducing U.S. foreign energy dependence by 20% over a 10-year period.

Now that the alarm has been sounded, a crucial component of eventually achieving success will lie in maintaining persistent efforts over time measured in decades (which Churchill also wrote that democracies tend not to do) and in recognizing and working cooperatively to deal with crucial details that inevitably surface. Details related to K-12 science education for instance include the fact that, despite federal legislation, the lion’s share of funding must come from the states.

“The big picture is right on,” commented Carl Wieman, a JILA (Boulder, CO) fellow and Nobel Laureate in the optical sciences who was not involved in the NAS report but who has studied and advanced novel concepts for improving science education. “We need students to be better educated in science and math, and we need better teachers to make it happen. But the details of implementation could have been improved because the committee members did not have the time or the expertise to look into all of the details.”

For instance, the effectiveness of efforts to recruit more science and math teachers remains limited by the relative lack of independence and of professional treatment in secondary education, as compared with jobs in science and engineering, leading to an unusually high turnover among science and math teachers, Wieman said. There is also “good evidence” that the summer institutes that have been proposed for improving the skills of current science and math teachers “don’t work very well.”

Wieman advocates improving science education not just to produce better scientists and more competitive economies, but also to enable a better informed electorate to more effectively participate in policy and decision making that ultimately has worldwide as well as national ramifications. Even though the NAS report did not address this perspective, Wieman sees the report as an important step in that direction.

“The level of attention that this report has gotten among high level policy makers is very encouraging,” he said. “And it’s important at this point to focus on the big picture, instead of on some of the details that need refinement.”

- Hassaun A. Jones-Bey


  1. W Churchill, The Second World War: Volume I, Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY (1948).

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