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STEM Education = Scientific Success

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Yesterday I watched as the world's top young high school scientists, researchers and innovators took home more than $3 million in awards at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) 2012 in Pittsburgh, PA.

Each of these competing students -- more than 1,500 from nearly 70 countries -- are a force for profound good. Their innovative thinking can help humanity adopt more effective responses to natural and man-made disasters, transition to safer and smarter vehicles, and discover new ways of treating and preventing disease.

Watching these students from every corner of the world reminded me that scientific research is truly a global endeavor -- and that virtually all scientists depend on the collaboration and abilities of colleagues in other countries.

While yesterday's results make clear that we incubate top young scientists in this country, when we look at our education system as a whole it is also clear that we in the U.S. can learn from our global neighbors. Countries such as Canada, Finland, and China consistently score well in national assessments of science education. They know that the advancement of science requires more than a brilliant mind. It requires public engagement and support.

It is undeniable that strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education is vital to the success of U.S. students in an increasingly technological and global economy. It is a critical building block for exploration, innovation, and the economy, and the catalyst to attack problems affecting the world -- today and tomorrow. It is also a catalyst for jobs.

To successfully pursue a major or career in the STEM fields, students must not only be interested but also proficient. However, the recent National Assessment of Educational Programs report found that nationally only 32% of U. S. eighth grade students were performing at or above a proficient level in science, and only 2% were performing at the advanced level.

To move the performance needle in the right direction significantly, we need the support of the entire community -- parents, educators, schools, mentors, partner organizations, and the government -- to produce more students proficient in the STEM fields and ready to take on the challenges of tomorrow.

We also need funding dedicated to creating this next generation of scientists and innovators. I recently attended a White House briefing for the Science, Technology, and Innovation Committee where it was reported that despite the Administration's support, STEM education is expected to be cut by 2.5%. In addition, without Congressional action, the student loan rate on Stafford loans will double, forcing millions of students to choose between a college education and extensive debt. Funding for STEM education is vital to the continued success not only of individuals, but of us as a nation.

It is not only STEM education that will be affected in this year's budget.

The National Institutes of Health, the leading supporter of basic biomedical research in the world, is expected to receive a flat budget. Due to the rate of biomedical inflation, this in effect means a budget cut. This affects not only the rate of scientific advancement negatively, but also -- and unfortunately -- the U.S. economy.

In his FY13 budget request, NIH Director Francis Collins testified, "One study estimates that every dollar of NIH support returns $2.21 in goods and services in just one year, and that on average, every NIH grant creates seven high-quality jobs." In addition, Collins said that United for Medical Research had found in its recent study that the "$23.7 billion NIH spent extramurally in the U.S. in 2011 directly and indirectly supported 432,092 jobs, enabling 16 states to experience job growth of 10,000 jobs or more, and propelling $62.135 billion in new economic activity."

Clearly, if we are concerned with the future success (not to mention health, well-being, and happiness) of our children, or with building new revenue streams, or creating jobs, we, as a community, need to express our continued support for STEM education and scientific research.

The Intel ISEF provides students the opportunity to be recognized, share their enthusiasm for original scientific research, and make vital connections both to other students and doctoral level scientists, all while being rewarded and showered with positive feedback, attention, and significant awards.

However, the Intel ISEF is just one opportunity among what should be a multifaceted effort supporting STEM education and the development of future scientists. While not all competitors from this year's event will go on to careers in the STEM fields, the skills and knowledge they have gained will serve them throughout their lives.

We, as a community, need to express our continued support for STEM education and scientific research.