U.S. Losing the Science Race
Science and engineering in the United States are in dangerous decline—and the country needs a concentrated effort to reverse the trend. That was the conclusion of a 20-member panel of the National Academies in October. "America today faces a serious and intensifying challenge with regard to its future competitiveness and standard of living," said panel chairman Norman Augustine, retired Lockheed Martin chairman. "Further, we appear to be on a losing path."
The performance of U.S. students in middle and high schools on international math and science exams is below the average of 38 other countries. Even advanced American math and physics students score near dead last among students in 20 tested countries, the panel reported. Since 1990 the number of bachelor's degrees in engineering has declined 8 percent; in mathematics, 20 percent. While 32 percent of U.S. students graduate with degrees in science and engineering, the figure in China is 59 percent.
Fewer grads means less research. Science Watch, a review of the Web research tool Essential Science Indicators, found a decline in U.S. representation among the world's published scientific papers, dropping from 38.5 percent in 1990 to 33.3 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, the Asian-Pacific share increased and "will likely outstrip that of the United States in six or seven years." Such declines may be reflected in the business of science; the National Academies reported the U.S. share of global high-tech exports fell during the last two decades from 30 to 17 percent, and its share of manufactured goods dropped from 33 billion in 1990 to 24 billion in 2004.
What to do? The panel proposed a $10 billion to $20 billion solution. It includes offering scholarships to draw top students into teaching math, science, engineering, and technology. The brightest young researchers should receive new grants worth $500,000 each. Overall, the panel said, the United States should increase investment in basic research by 10 percent annually for seven years. —Bruce Stutz
Deception Plagues Medical Research
A study published in June found that an alarming percentage of medical research is not only untrustworthy but also downright deceitful. HealthPartners Research Foundation and the University of Minnesota surveyed several thousand scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health, and a third of the respondents anonymously admitted to one of 10 serious ethical lapses, such as fabricating data or plagiarizing.
Even more common, says Melissa Anderson, a University of Minnesota higher education researcher, were minor misbehaviors like dropping conflicting data or withholding results. Anderson thinks these deceptive practices may stem from scientists' perceptions that they are not being treated fairly when it comes to receiving grants or getting proper credit. "Science is built on a highly competitive system that relies heavily on junior people," says Anderson. "There may be structural inequities in the way we've built the system that increase junior scientists' sense of organizational injustice." —Zach Zorich
Bush vs. Science: Round Five Jabs
Another year, another round of accusations that the Bush administration is politicizing science. Despite administration denials, the voices from the scientific community this year were louder, the charges more acrimonious. The anger was spurred largely by news stories of questionable decisions—or deception. Some examples:
- The Environmental Protection Agency: Career scientists said they were pressured by political appointees to ignore or omit research that ran counter to President George W. Bush's plan to slow the reduction of mercury pollution at coal-burning power plants. The Government Accountability Office later confirmed the scientists' claims.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: In a survey, the Union of Concerned Scientists found 128 of 291 scientists had been told to refrain from making findings that would require further protections of wildlife and vegetation.
- The White House: In June The New York Times reported that an administration official, who had previously worked as an oil industry lobbyist opposing limits on greenhouse gases, edited federal climate-change reports to minimize connections between gas emissions and global warming. The official resigned.
Administration officials rejected most criticism. "President Bush believes policies should be made with the best and most complete information possible and expects his administration to conduct its business with integrity and in a way that fulfills that belief," said Dr. John Marburger, the president's science adviser. "I can attest from my personal experience and direct knowledge that this administration is implementing the president's policy of strongly supporting science and applying the highest scientific standards in decision making." —Kurt Repanshek
Intelligent Designers Tested in Pennsylvania
Dover, Pennsylvania (population 1,914), is not the sort of town in which scientific theories are routinely tested. But in September the rural community, 25 miles south of Harrisburg, became a pivotal battleground in the long war between Darwinism and its doubters. Like the famous Scopes "monkey trial" 80 years earlier, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District revolved around the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes. There was a new twist, however: In Dover, the anti-Darwinists denied that they were motivated by religion. Instead, they championed what they called an alternative theory of evolution—a hypothesis known as intelligent design.
At first glance, intelligent design looks like the same argument that evolution's foes have made since 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species: Only a divine intelligence could have created something as complex as life on Earth. Although nearly all scientists accept Darwin's theory of random mutation and natural selection (which is supported by the fossil record and by a wealth of evidence in fields as diverse as geology, genetics, and astronomy), polls show that about 45 percent of Americans still believe in the biblical account of how life arose. In the 1960s some began calling their doctrine creation science and demanding that its concepts—for example, that the Grand Canyon was carved by Noah's flood—be given equal time in school curricula. After the U.S. Supreme Court nixed that idea in 1987, citing the constitutional ban on establishing a state religion clause, creationist thinkers came up with a subtler tactic: Dis Darwinism without mentioning God.
Intelligent design never names the designer; presumably, students will figure that out for themselves.
As a scientific theory, intelligent design lacks certain basics. "One requirement of science is that it makes specific predictions, which can be tested in a laboratory," notes geologist Robert Hazen, author of Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin. "Another requirement is that it doesn't rely on supernatural or miraculous processes." Yet this stealth version of creationism is far more sophisticated than its predecessors, thanks largely to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that aims, according to a fund-raising pitch, to replace "the stifling dominance of the materialist world view" with "a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."
Since 1996, the institute's Center for Science and Culture has awarded $3.6 million in grants to 50 or so researchers. Many of them agree that minor evolutionary changes may have occurred by Darwinian means. But they argue that certain features of living things—the eye, for instance, or the bacterial flagellum—are irreducibly complex and could not have developed gradually by trial and error. As one grantee, mathematician-theologian William Dembski, writes in his book The Design Revolution: "There are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence." The probability of such systems occurring by chance, he calculates, is less than 1 in 10150.
The stage for the courtroom confrontation was set in October 2004, when the Dover school board voted 6 to 3 to require ninth-grade biology students to listen to a brief disclaimer asserting that "Darwin's theory is a theory . . . not a fact" and that "Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view." The statement recommended an intelligent design textbook, Of Pandas and People, available in the school library. Dover High School's science teachers balked at the order, and 11 parents filed suit against the board for trying to impose religion on their kids. In August President Bush backed the board, saying, "Both sides ought to be properly taught" so that students could "understand what the debate is about."
Oddly, the Discovery Institute seemed to take both sides. It criticized the school board's action and two of its expert witnesses withdrew. But it did supply a third witness and filed a supporting brief. "We oppose any effort to require students to learn about intelligent design," senior fellow John G. West told The New York Times. Instead, the institute advocates "teaching the controversy"—a legally safer approach, in which schools present Darwinism as controversial without endorsing intelligent design.
The fight is not likely to end with Dover: Across the country, school systems are embroiled in more than 80 struggles over evolution. In January 2005, a federal judge ordered officials in Cobb County, Georgia, to remove stickers questioning Darwinism from textbooks; in May, the Kansas board of education began deliberating on whether to include the "controversy" in state science curricula. The issue goes beyond Darwin. "If intelligent design is injected into the classroom by political means, it will be the first step towards a complete politicization of everything in science," says Brown University biologist Kenneth R. Miller, author of Finding Darwin's God, who testified for the Dover plaintiffs. "Nothing could be worse." —Kenneth M. Miller