The American Science Deficit -- and What to do About it

08/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today, on the 40 year anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we will hear a great deal about NASA's woes, the nation's declining interest in space exploration, and much else. It is crucial, though, to set such observations in the context of a far broader disengagement with science that has occurred in this country since the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Launched by President Kennedy, the Apollo program was just the most prominent example of America's dramatic investment of science in the wake of the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik. The first Earth-orbiting satellite, beeping at us from above, inspired stark competitive fears in the nation: Were we falling behind in technology? Would the Soviets fire on us from the skies, and if they tried, could we stop them?

In response, the U.S. Congress jacked up the budget of the recently formed National Science Foundation to $134 million, an increase of nearly $100 million in just one year. And that was just the beginning -- NSF's budget continued to explode in subsequent years, so that by 1962-1963 it had reached $12.2 billion. [This statement is mistaken: the 1962-1963 figure represents the total federal government R&D expenditure.] Meanwhile, Congress created NASA and passed the National Defense Education Act, providing generous funding to encourage American students to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Still, that's just the beginning of the response to Sputnik. At the same time, President Eisenhower pulled science into the White House by creating the office of the president's Science Adviser and the president's Science Advisory Committee, also, the National Science Foundation drew upon the nation's elite researchers in an attempt to remake the high school science education curriculum. Science journalism also boomed, as a generation of enthusiasts wrote about each daily step of the thrilling space race.

In sum, the policies and cultural changes unleashed in the wake of Sputnik shaped the course of American science for decades -- and made us world leaders. But then, something went very wrong. Science budgets stopped rising and began to fall. Educational investment also declined. Science became ensnared with politics, first the foe of the religious right, then something to be spiked at will by the Bush administration.

More broadly, our culture changed vastly since the mid-twentieth century. Science became much less cool, scientists ceased to be role models, and kids aren't rushing home anymore to fire rockets from their backyards.

One could spend a vast amount of ink on the complex changes that brought us to this point -- and you would have to focus equally on the media, the political system, conflicts over religion and even the community of scientists themselves. (In a new book titled Unscientific America, co-authored with a young scientist named Sheril Kirshenbaum, I do just this). But suffice it to say, just as science was at the center of national attention during the days of the space race, so it has plummeted from this position since.

A 2008 analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, for instance, found that if you tune in for five hours worth of cable news, you will probably catch only one minute's coverage of science and technology. As for newspapers, from 1989 to 2005 the number featuring weekly science or science-related sections shrank by nearly two-thirds, from 95 to 34.

When Congress heard timely testimony last week about the state of the space program, one witness was Miles O'Brien -- the space journalist who, ironically enough, lost his job at CNN late last year. That pretty much says it all about how we value and regard science today, as opposed to how we valued and regarded it after Sputnik.

So what needs to change? One doesn't remake a culture easily, and the Obama administration is already doing everything it can, policy-wise, to reinvest in science and to clean house after the "war on science" perpetrated by the Bush administration. But this isn't a gap the president and his administration can bridge, certainly not alone.

It's far from clear that, at a time of media industry upheaval, we can expect new levels of attention to science in the press any time soon. If anything, science journalism may decline further before stabilizing. Ditto for American science education: We need vast reforms, but this is a massive, generational project.

But we also have a largely overlooked asset in this fight: The nation's universities, and in particular, the army of young researchers there who want to bring about a helpful change in our nation's engagement with science. These students -- and I have met them on campuses across the country -- can see that while their professors put us at the top of the world in science, the rest of America didn't follow along. Instead, much of the public missed out on the incredible odyssey of discovery. And at the same time, scientists themselves didn't learn nearly as much about how to talk to the rest of America as they did about how to uncover facts about nature.

Perhaps that is the key imbalance here, and one that it's finally time to redress. Scientists today regularly lament the gap between science and the public, but the real issue is to stop being part of it -- to stop having a vast divide between the "experts" and everybody else. If there's one lesson to take from the decline of public engagement with science since the days of the space race, it's that even the best and brightest among us have a lot of work to do.