Archive for Sunday, October 1, 2000

3 cheers, 3 boos for science education

October 1, 2000


Three cheers for science sounded recently in Kansas. First, in August, three of four anti-science candidates for the Kansas Board of Education were roundly defeated in the primary election. Kansans demonstrated at the ballot box an abiding respect for scientific knowledge and education. They didn't appreciate being made an international laughingstock by the KBOE candidates who had voted to censor basic biology, geology and astronomy for Kansas schoolchildren.

Second, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts held a press conference in Topeka to announce the results of an important poll conducted in Kansas by Research America: 92 percent of Kansans think that government should invest in basic scientific research, and 94 percent ranked science and engineering research as an important national priority. Kansans are savvy folk. They know that today's economic prosperity is the result of yesterday's investment in research. Tomorrow's prosperity will come from today's research.

Third, a large bipartisan group of U.S. senators declared their support in September for doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation over the next few years. The NSF is the only federal agency that funds science and engineering research and education at all levels and across all fields. For this enormous mandate, however, it has tiny budget of $4 billion compared, for example, to $17 billion for the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency that funds medical research.

Along with the three cheers for science, however, came three boos. First, Kansas received an F-minus from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for the "disgraceful" science education standards the KBOE foisted on the state last year. The collateral damage, undeserved, is that Kansas' sullied educational reputation will take a long time to redeem.

The AAAS could have jump-started Kansas on the road to educational redemption by valuing reality over reputation. They should have given the state an A for tossing out three KBOE members and the science-challenged standards they voted for. The new KBOE promises to institute nationally approved science standards at their first meeting in January 2001. As Steve Rose recently suggested in the Johnson County Sun, the new KBOE could send an educational message heard round the world by having that first meeting at the KU Natural History Museum "in front of the biggest dinosaur skeleton" in the building. Memo to the new KBOE: You have a standing invitation.

Second, a 1999 NSF survey of the public understanding of science revealed that only 11 percent of adults could explain radiation, 16 percent the Internet, 13 percent a molecule, and 29 percent DNA. Only 33 percent knew of the Big Bang origin of the universe, 28 percent thought the sun goes around the Earth, only 49 percent knew that it takes a year for the Earth to orbit the sun, and 51 percent thought early humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time.

H.G. Wells once said that "human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." To avoid catastrophe, science literacy in the American public, especially among our young people, is essential if we are to make intelligent choices in a world of exploding science and technology, and if we are to have a future work force educated to sustain the economic prosperity of the country.

The third boo may be NSF's appropriation for fiscal year 2001. Congress appears to have ignored the senators' plea to begin doubling the NSF budget; it has tentatively cut President Clinton's requested 17 percent increase to about 10 percent. Pity. One of the casualties may be a sophisticated earthquake monitoring network for the country. Sen. Roberts is right; the nation and this state must make massive and continuous investments in science research and education, including the facilities the buildings, labs and networks where that research and education will occur.

Finally, in a society increasingly dependent on scientific and technological know-how, the media must cover science more broadly, more deeply and more often. Journalism schools need to foster many more science reporters who can translate complex concepts and scientific jargon into plain English for all readers. Many more newspapers need to feature a daily or weekly science section. Universities need to market their essential role as engines of knowledge discovery, from new stars in the galaxies and new species in the rain forests to new cures for diseases and new technologies for better living. And scientists need to enter the public arena more often and more articulately to explain their exploration of the universe, Earth and life on Earth.

As a recent article in Science magazine concluded, if we expect the nation to support science in the national interest, we must promote a national interest in science. Vote for a doubling of the NSF budget.

Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center at Kansas University.

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