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Accepting the Challenge of Continued U.S. Science Leadership

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Science and technology have fueled America's standing as a global superpower, and the millions of jobs that flow from that leadership. Yet the place of science in America's future is publicly debated now perhaps more than at any time since the Scopes Trial of 1925 -- the landmark legal case over the right to teach evolution in school. The consequences of not maintaining our national commitment to science, however, are greater than ever -- for American economic preeminence, for our own standard of living, and for humankind. That's why Research Corporation for Science Advancement -- the nation's oldest foundation devoted wholly to science, which I have the honor of leading -- has made a renewed commitment in this our centennial year to being in the forefront of science advocacy: for scientific research, for transformational science, and for science education.

Globally, there is urgency to the situation, as the world depends increasingly on the scientific breakthroughs for which the United States is legendary. The population of the underdeveloped world is projected to increase by 2.9 billion by 2050, and that growth is likely to add exponentially to problems of health maintenance and disease control. Of the 7 billion people on earth, 854 million, or 12.6 percent, are already undernourished, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and in many countries clean water is in short supply.

The global demand for energy adds more challenges for energy production and the environment. According to energy chemist Nathan S. Lewis of the California Institute of Technology, the world must go from roughly 15 billion terawatts peak rate of energy production today (with 80 to 90 percent derived from fossil fuel combustion) to roughly 30 billion terawatts by 2050.

For the United States the challenges are striking, as well. Economists have estimated that about half of U.S. economic growth since World War II has been the result of technological innovation. Yet rising economic powers like China and India increasingly understand America's "secret" of success: our commitment to producing and inspiring the world's science leaders.

To excel in tomorrow's global economy, the United States must produce more scientists and more transformational research. Key to that is increasing the quality of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in the vast majority of colleges and universities, bringing the effectiveness of instruction closer to the level found in top institutions.

Unfortunately, the academic community -- of which I have been a part for more than 30 years -- excels at conducting studies and offering analysis but falls short when it comes to taking widespread coordinated action. It is as if the inhabitants of this particular archipelago are fond of beating their drums to warn of approaching danger, but somehow all of this urgent communication among the islands never transforms into a comprehensive concerted response to the collective threat.

Given the recent revival among some politicians of the practice of ridiculing ("Proxmiring") National Science Foundation-funded, peer-reviewed, scientific research, as well as congressional gridlock and continuing budget battles, it is unlikely that there is a taxpayer-funded rescue armada steaming this way. We in the academic-based science community must rise to the challenge ourselves.

That's why Research Corporation for Science Advancement has made this commitment to advocacy. As a small independent foundation, we will take advantage of our capacity to be nimble and aggressive, while larger agencies and institutions may be more cautious or deliberative.

In our centennial year (having been founded in 1912), Research Corporation for Science Advancement follows our established tradition of recognizing a challenge and taking action that we hope will be transformative. In earlier times, among other game-changing work, we funded Robert Goddard, now known as the father of modern rocketry, at a critical time in his research, when even The New York Times ridiculed his notion of sending a rocket to the moon. We supported the quest of Ernest O. Lawrence (now the namesake of the Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories) to build the first large cyclotron, opening the door to subatomic physics. And we helped eliminate the dietary scourges of pellagra and beriberi.

In keeping with this tradition of action, Research Corporation for Science Advancement pledges to work aggressively to rally our academic colleagues, sister foundations, and other like-minded organizations for a frontal assault on the current stumbling blocks impeding the production of more top-quality science and scientists. This will require, among other things, reasserting the ideal of the teacher-scholar (as opposed to the isolated researcher) as the central powerhouse of U.S. science advancement; it will depend upon cross-disciplinary approaches at a time when scientific discovery is more complex than ever; it will necessitate a widespread commitment to undergraduate research programs, through which students are most engaged in the work of science and can most envision a career in science; and it will require a rethinking of how science is taught, moving away from the iconic auditorium lecture to a hands-on experience with science, enhanced by digital opportunities that did not previously exist.

America has an extraordinary legacy in science and technology and an outstanding foundation of global leadership on which to build. We also have a population of potential future scientists who are already digitally inclined and captivated by technological advances. But we must not take our nation's leadership for granted. It is being challenged as never before, and at a time when our national success is producing scientists is declining.

America needs more scientists, and the academic-based science community must be in the forefront of designing and implementing solutions. The jobs that Americans want and need depend upon it, as does our nation's preeminence in innovation and the future of scientific inquiry and discovery.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (, which celebrates its centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- this year.