America's Scientific Dream Team

02/07/2009 04:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James M. Gentile Dean for the Natural & Applied Sciences, Hope College, Holland, MI

It shouldn't be surprising that some of the leading scientists in the nation would be nominated to the top science-related positions in the U.S. government, and yet the mere fact of those appointments offers great hope for our nation and the scientific challenges before us. It was just over a year ago, after all, that at one presidential debate three candidates identified themselves as not believing in the theory of evolution.

What's particularly encouraging is that these leading scientists are not only great researchers but proven administrators, with demonstrated skills at managing people and building consensus that will be crucial in tackling these challenges. These scientists include most notably the following:

* Dr. Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist nominated to be U.S. Secretary of Energy, who has been Director of the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004;

* Dr. John Holdren, Professor and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and President and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, who has been appointed Assistant to the President for Science and Technology;

* Dr. Harold Varmus, Nobel Prize-winning physician and President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who will serve as Co-Chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, along with John Holdren and Eric Lander;

* Dr. Eric Lander, Founding Director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard and one of the driving forces behind mapping the human genome;

* Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the Oregon State University Professor of Marine Biology and former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who has been nominated as the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This is truly a scientific dream team that President-elect Barack Obama has assembled, and we're going to need them, for America faces science challenges on many fronts, and all of them need to be addressed strategically, thoughtfully, and quickly. Those challenges include, among others, the following:

First, we must confront the twin technical challenges of how best to address global climate change and the need for alternative sources of energy. These are pivotal issues for the planet; they can be ignored no longer, and there is arguably no higher priority.

Second, we must re-invigorate American research in two ways: increase federal research funding, which has declined in real terms for the fourth year in a row, and enhance career opportunities for young scientists. The chance of a young researcher (age 42 or below) being successful in a grant competition at the National Institutes of Health has now been reduced to a remarkably low 4 percent. Continuing to discourage young scientists, the intellectual lifeblood of the future, is much like adults of an endangered species "eating their young." The end result is short-term satisfaction and long-term extinction. Creating more research opportunities and encouraging promising scientists to continue as researchers are both crucial to maintaining American preeminence in the sciences.

Third, we must increase science literacy among the American people. The United States, once the clear world leader in the sciences, is now lagging behind up-and-coming Asian nations in the percentage of science and engineering graduates it produces. Public schools in the United States are struggling just to provide enough math and science teachers, many of whom lack adequate credentials in the field. As a result, our students aren't keeping up academically. A 2003 survey of math and science literacy ranked American 15-year-olds against those of other industrialized nations. In math, our students came in 24th out of 28 countries; in science, we were 24th out of 40 countries, tied with Latvia.

The United States has arguably the greatest scientific legacy in world history, and it's a primary reason for our past economic strength. Rebuilding that strength will depend on the sciences as well. The dream team that President-elect Obama has drafted is suiting up when they're needed most, but the nation must be behind them, providing the support that they need to win.

The author is President of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a foundation dedicated to science since 1912.