The United States rose to superpower status through a necessary, aggressive push towards innovation and scientific discovery in the last century. Many of the technologies developed in the last one hundred years were products of research funding by the U.S. government. In the old days, the gap between discovery/invention (public sector) and product development (private sector) was more easily traversed and companies were more than willing to take that leap. What scientists and engineers viewed was almost certainly drastically different from what consumers viewed, but either way, it was progress.
The world is a much different place now. Research funding (minus stimulus funding) has remained stagnant and the outlook is bleak.
One of the overlooked aspects of this funding is the community outreach and broader impacts that result from grants. This includes money for paying undergraduates and graduate students for research conducted in the grantee’s lab. From personal experience, most of the undergraduates that came through our lab when I was a graduate student were STEM majors. However, this is misleading because the goal after receiving their B.S. was to attend a professional school including medical, dental, and pharmacy schools. To date, only one out of twenty or so undergraduates from our lab later attended a STEM graduate program.
Why aren’t more students interested in STEM?
“A society’s competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic table, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity”
Embarrassingly, I have to admit something. Despite my overwhelming love of science and passion for teaching science to others, I grew up not knowing whom Carl Sagan was. Back story: I grew up in East Tennessee, the son of a mechanic and a bookkeeper. I never even opened one of Sagan’s books until my 30s. I must say, it was my loss.
I have had the privilege of listening to the stories from those who knew Carl Sagan personally. He sounded like such a sweet, endearing person that the world desperately needed and unfortunately still does. By today’s standards, Sagan was a cosmic anomaly harnessing the knowledge from learning, the oration of a great leader, and the passion to spread the wonders of the universe to the masses.
Since the premier of the new production of Cosmos, listening to everyone talk of Sagan makes him sound like a god, but he was something even more great. Carl Sagan was a genuine, compassionate human being. He saw the big picture, even though it is too often clouded by politics and special interests, as what it was; our collective, solitary home among the vast cosmos. Our home has problems that must be addressed and these problems will continue to grow without intervention. Sagan knew a curious, enlightened society could be a force for change.
I wish I had known Carl Sagan, knowing how he has touched the lives of those who encountered him. Neil deGrasse Tyson has had enormous shoes to fill by assuming the role of navigator through the Cosmos. It is our turn to do our part as science communicators to ensure Sagan’s legacy rekindled is not in vain.
There it is. Our home. To us it seems like such a huge place where we will never meet all our neighbors. A place where we live our daily lives consumed with news and opinions from all directions. We work. We play. We do silly stuff like fight wars or think we are the best at this sport or that.
Now look at the picture. Could you spot ‘us’ without the circle? As the dominant species on our planet, we think we are on top. We can explore our Moon. We can travel to our neighbor planet with robots. It is said the human brain is the most complex piece of matter in the known universe.
All Mother Nature can do is chuckle.
As the above image easily shows, it is all about perspective. Our grandeur is self-inflated. Despite the best efforts and actions of us on Earth, Mother Nature will always have the upper hand. She gives us room to explore. She allows us to make strides, great and small. But inevitably, she always reminds us we can not walk confidently on our journey. Stellar threats are all around; invisible until the time of their death in our black or blue sky. Prehistoric mass extinctions to modern day injuries and destruction in Russia last year.
Mother Nature does not speak any of our earthly language. She only speaks the language of the universe. The language we wish to learn through our research and study. The language we long to understand for it will tell us our true history…from the beginning.
On this International Women’s Day, remember, we are all very important to ourselves. However, our great Mother still laughs at us.
As my students know very well, I love the whole idea of TED. “Ideas worth spreading” is their mantra and it fits. I just finished watching a TEDMED talk by Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson from 2012 that I have watched several times before entitled, “Advice to Young Scientists”. However, this time through extra digging, I found a short Q & A that followed that talk in which Wilson elaborates on why imagination is so important in science. Expounding on the words of Einstein, Wilson says, paraphrasing, that a scientist must think like a poet and work like a bookkeeper. Creativity and imagination are essential and scientific training makes the discoveries possible.
“New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.”–
Almost 70 years later, I feel Bush’s words and recommendations within the Report ring just as relevant. In a time when developed countries have increased funding for research and development in FY2012, TWO countries stood out like sore thumbs for decreasing federal research dollars; the United States and Canada. I wish this report could be redistributed to all members of Congress. In this post, I want to bring attention to some of the most ironic/prophetic points. Let’s get right to it…
The responsibility for basic research in medicine and the underlying sciences, so essential to progress in the war against disease, falls primarily upon the medical schools and universities. Yet we find that the traditional sources of support for medical research in the medical schools and universities, largely endowment income, foundation grants, and private donations, are diminishing and there is no immediate prospect of a change in this trend. Meanwhile, the cost of medical research has been rising. If we are to maintain the progress in medicine which has marked the last 25 years, the Government should extend financial support to basic medical research in the medical schools and in universities.
Bush spoke of the great advancement made in antibiotics with the discovery of penicillin. Today, this quote still rings true, certainly with the growing threat of antibiotic resistant pathogens.
How do we increase this scientific capital? First, we must have plenty of men and women trained in science, for upon them depends both the creation of new knowledge and its application to practical purposes. Second, we must strengthen the centers of basic research which are principally the colleges, universities, and research institutes. These institutions provide the environment which is most conducive to the creation of new scientific knowledge and least under pressure for immediate, tangible results. With some notable exceptions, most research in industry and Government involves application of existing scientific knowledge to practical problems. It is only the colleges, universities, and a few research institutes that devote most of their research efforts to expanding the frontiers of knowledge.
This letter is for any and all that have a genuine interest in the future of our country. Many whose livelihood and passion dwells under the umbrella of Research & Development have watched helplessly over the past decade a deterioration in the enterprise that has made the United States the most successful global leader in the history of civilization. This enterprise emerged from one of the darkest tragedies in our nation’s history on December 7, 1941. With great foresight, our leaders knew resilience and ultimately the preservation of our way of life depended not upon naive belief but creativity and innovation among the brightest minds in the country; themselves immigrants brought here by persecution.
Beginning with the Manhattan Project, the U.S. has built unchallenged scientific leadership. The unfortunate irony is that another dark tragedy on September 11, 2001 started its slow downward spiral.
“Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children.”
-Albert Einstein, 1934
Many professions have had their icons and role models. Einstein is arguably the most famous scientist to walk this planet. When once asked what was the best advice he could give to people, he said to always remember to put the shower curtain inside the tub before turning on the water. He had a sense of humor that made him relatable to the masses even though he saw the wonders of Nature as math equations. Einstein wrote a lot about curiosity, imagination, and enthusiasm. These qualities can be used in many ventures, but he chose Physics.
Bill Nye has never been accused of lacking enthusiasm. Having a genuine curiosity of how things work led to a degree in mechanical engineering. Most of us, however, know him as the Science Guy on TV. Spanning 100 episodes, Bill Nye the Science Guy laid a foundation for many across the country to explore curiosity and imagination. Nye took on current, relevant topics and made them relatable and understandable for children (and their parents).
For me, these shows were a time for exploration (virtually). I was able to better comprehend myself, nature, space, chemistry, etc. Times have changed and most people receive information from a variety of sources, some much more interactive. The technology to inspire children to pursue STEM careers are out there. However, where are the enthusiastic STEM crusaders and icons? Unfortunately, it’s not the teachers. They are too busy teaching mandated facts in a race to get through all the course material before the standardized tests in the spring…