Archive for Sunday, January 2, 2005

Making science sexy should be goal in ‘05

January 2, 2005


I have some New Year's resolutions to suggest. They're not for myself but for the nation -- pardon the grandiosity.

One is that we encourage science-minded graduate students from overseas to study in the United States.

A second is that we inspire our own kids to fall in love with science and technology.

These resolutions will trouble some people.

The first may raise fears, dating to 9-11, about international visitors to America.

The second may raise the hackles of professors in the humanities, who protest, "How about getting kids to fall in love with art and literature, too?!"

I have a master's degree in English, so I think they're right. There's much wisdom in literature. I'll come back to that in a minute.

But first let me talk about the fear behind my resolutions.

This country is going to need more scientists and engineers to remain economically competitive with China and India in the decades ahead.

I bring this up because, according to the New York Times, foreign applications to U.S. graduate schools fell 28 percent this year.

The two largest groups of foreign students enrolled in U.S. universities are from India and China. The Times article said these students are critical to American science, engineering and information technology research.

Enrollment of Indian students is also down 28 percent, according to the Times.

Why? Because it's hard to get a visa to study here and because the quality of universities worldwide is going up.

Diana Carlin, dean of the Kansas University graduate school, says, "We have educated faculty members all over the world, and they've improved their universities and expanded the research enterprise. As a result, they don't have to send their students here, especially in this environment."

KU has increased its foreign graduate student enrollment, Carlin says. It's one of the few large public universities to do so.

But if the numbers of foreign graduate students dwindle, research will suffer.

"We have some graduate programs that are about 75 percent international students," Carlin says. "If we lose those and don't produce domestic students interested in science and engineering, we're going to have a problem staffing laboratories."

And thus my second resolution for America -- figuring out how to get kids here interested in math and science.

After the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, a swell of national pride helped us catch up. No comparable feeling drives research now.

The biggest increases in government funding for research are in the realm of homeland security.

That's important. But I bet rocket science is more compelling to kids than detecting minute quantities of toxins.

The most exciting basic science today focuses on what is far below the threshold of the senses, and it takes charismatic and articulate teachers to catalyze student interest in such studies.

It also takes great graduate programs to attract the best minds from here and abroad in an educationally competitive world.

Are we willing to pay for these?

If we can't raise debt ceilings forever, are we willing to sacrifice a little to pay the bill? How much will we give? Or give up?

If the answer is "nothing," then, as someone who still believes in the wisdom in literature, I'll quote Shakespeare.

Here's what a proud king named Lear, who gave his kingdom to two ungrateful daughters and lost everything, said about "nothing":

Nothing will come of nothing.

Roger Martin is publications and features editor for the KU Center for Research. His commentaries on research can be found at Martin's e-mail address is

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