Dawn or Twilight? Future of American Science

By Zack Kopplin

One of the greatest things about mankind is its ability to tackle global problems with global solutions. In order to do that, we need to properly invest — both monetarily and educationally — in science and technology. And for the past several decades, the United States has led the world in cutting edge research.

But, I’m worried that this may not continue because America has a growing science problem.

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Too many American kids aren’t receiving an adequate science education. For example, 60% of public school biology teachers only cover evolution partially or not at all. Another 13% of teachers promote creationism instead of evidence-based science.

Policymakers continue to compromise students' education. My home state, Louisiana, has a creationism law. This law allows unscientific alternatives to evolution to be brought into public school science classes. This law also targets other politically sensitive topics, including climate change and cloning, despite that neither of these are scientific controversies. Laws such as these are intentionally designed to confuse students about the evidence backing mainstream science, and it does students an educational disservice.

Frustratingly, Louisiana isn’t the only state to pass such a law. Tennessee passed a copycat law in 2012, and each year, we see various attempts around the country to pass similar laws. North Carolina is trying to outlaw climate science all together.

If students miss out on learning about science’s greatest discoveries, it is difficult to imagine how they will grow up to tackle the world’s very real problems. Evolution is key to understanding antibiotic resistance among bacteria. We also need evolution and genetics to help us modify crops to feed the Earth’s growing population. We need climatology to understand our environment while simultaneously developing the necessary tools to remove carbon from the atmosphere.  

Supporting science doesn’t end with education. Groundbreaking research must also be funded. Science is the best public investment we can make. The initial $3.6 billion the U.S. government spent on the Human Genome Project resulted in $78.4 billion in new tax revenue and $796 billion in economic activity.

Unfortunately, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, funding has been “largely stagnant” over the past decade. The purchasing power of the National Institute of Health has steadily fallen for the past decade. The recent budget sequester may cut $95 billion from science funding over the next ten years. These developments will only serve to exacerbate another problem: The average age when scientists receive their first research grant is at the ripe old age of 44. Unsurprisingly, 20% of American scientists are considering leaving the country in search of new funding for their work.

When we put a man on the moon, that was America's first, “Giant Leap.” We need a Second Giant Leap, where we build a coalition of scientists, business people, clergy, teachers, students, and citizens who demand an end to science neglect from politicians and a major reinvestment in science funding. Let’s make sure the 21st Century remains an American one.

Zack Kopplin is a science and education activist. He’s been featured on Real Time with Bill Maher and in the New York Times. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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