01/04/2013 12:00 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

Television Ads for Math and Science

What a welcome sight during the holidays: national television advertisements for improving America's student performance in math and science, aired during football games! In the midst of holiday shopping, who would have thought we'd be encouraged to take such action? Yet there's arguably nothing more important for America to buy than the concept of preparing our nation's children for the jobs of the 21st century, which will inevitably require proficiency in math and science.

Credit for funding the ads goes to Exxon Mobil and its support for the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), an effort that was formed following a landmark 2005 report by the National Academies titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm. NMSI was created to implement the recommendations of the report, which calls for dramatically improving K-12 math and science education, and to advance the replication of effective educational programs to improve American competitiveness.

Its current programs include UTeach, which recruits and trains math and science majors in universities to become teachers; the AP Training and Incentive Program, which improves college readiness by increasing the number of high school students taking and succeeding in Advanced Placement math, science and English courses; and Laying the Foundation, which provides quality teacher training, rigorous classroom materials and Web-based resources to improve the quality of English, mathematics and science instruction from middle school through high school.

These programs rightly help strengthen, from kindergarten onward, the math and science infrastructure that America needs to maintain its preeminence in scientific and technological innovation, and they emphasize the interconnectedness of the components of that infrastructure: Grades K-12 are linked to undergraduate education, which must in turn be tied to graduate and early-career scientific research.

Connecting those components is a top priority of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the foundation that I lead -- and America's oldest foundation devoted wholly to science. Our Partners in Science program links college faculty to high school teachers and students; both the Cottrell Scholars and Cottrell College Science Awards ensure that college students have opportunities to conduct research with science faculty, and our Scialog initiative, among other programs, enables early-career faculty to pursue potentially transformative research and envision career opportunities ahead. Such initiatives are crucial to ensuring that this infrastructure is intertwined and sustaining.

In their book The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley, Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt write of the biology of innovation:

How we interact with each other is like a recipe that takes a bunch of independent atoms -- human beings -- and combines them into something greater than the mere sum of these atoms. Most of the time, that recipe looks quite familiar. It consists of the day-to-day interactions that make up everyday life: buying vegetables at the supermarket, making a phone call to your mother, sharing a coffee with your friend. Every once in a while, however, the recipe has an explosive effect, like an ember that bursts into a blazing fire. This is the spark of systemic innovation. Systemic innovation happens when the value we get out of a continuing series of human interactions is disproportionate to the original value of the ingredients we put into the system, not unlike a bag of fresh produce transformed into a gourmet meal. One plus one can indeed be greater than two.

It's systemic innovation that NMSI and Research Corporation for Science Advancement both seek to achieve by enhancing our nation's innovation infrastructure. And the beauty of that infrastructure is that it can produce innovation rapidly and in dimensions that we cannot even anticipate.

In a December 2012 cover story, Bloomberg Businessweek interviewed Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, the world's most valuable company. In the interview Cook notes that Apple has only about a dozen products: "[W]e have four iPods. We have two main iPhones. We have two iPads, and we have a few Macs. That's it." Yet with those few products, which are frequently updated, the company has revolutionized the world to a degree that is even more startling. Cook continues, "Eighty percent of our revenues are from products that didn't exist 60 days ago."

The pace of innovation in the world is mind-boggling. Facebook was founded in 2004, and within eight years it had more than 1 billion active users. Who is to say what innovations lie ahead?

The best we can do as a nation is to develop and sustain our innovation infrastructure, providing a setting for the day-to-day human interactions that will lead to sparks of systemic innovation. If that infrastructure is built and sustained, our nation's scientific and technological preeminence -- and the jobs that flow from it -- will be secure.

Key to the strength and breadth of that infrastructure is public support, a clear consensus that math and science are a top national priority. That's why those television advertisements are so encouraging: They're making the need to improve America's performance in math and science part of our popular culture. That's a crucial development and one that deserves great praise and recognition.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (, which celebrated its centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- in 2012.