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America in danger from dwindling scientific creativity

The New York Times last week featured a front-page article that might be more ominous for America’s future than the periodic fluctuations of the economy or the stock market.

“U.S. Is Losing Its Dominance In the Sciences,” read the headline, meaning that a number of markers of American achievement in science have declined steeply in recent years.

The article, for example, reported that the number of American physics research papers published in certain scientific journals has dropped sharply in two decades. When once U.S. papers were the majority of those published in the world, they are now a distinct minority. “Last year the total was just 29 percent, down from 61 percent in 1983,” the Times reported.

Declines also have occurred in the number of Nobel prizes given to Americans and the number of industrial patents registered in the United States, which has “fallen steadily over the decades and now stands at 52 percent.”

Some of the relative U.S. decline is the result of economic advances of foreign countries — progress that is good for the global economy of which we are a part. What’s disturbing is that, as foreign scientific achievements have risen, some markers of U.S. achievements have either not increased or even have declined.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle blamed the problem on President Bush not spending enough money on research. But, as the Times reported, federal research budgets “are still at record highs; this year more than $126 billion has been allocated to research.” And the decline in scientific markers has occurred over a period predating the Bush years.

A better explanation for the declines comes from Fred L. Smith Jr., president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market science think tank. “We’ve managed to denigrate science for 30 years and this is the result,” he said.

The prevalent attitude today is that “science is more to be feared than revered. Most professional scientific societies are against their own profession.” He said students are frightened away from science by such unscientific scares as the threat of global warming and the danger of nuclear power.

This disdain of science (as well as other endemic problems) is reflected in the U.S. public school system. A 2000 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that U.S. students’ math literacy ranked 19th out of 31 industrial nations and science literacy, 14th. Kids who don’t learn science adequately in K-12 schools are unlikely to become top scientists a few years later.

The Times article should be a wake-up call. The great American tradition of entrepreneurship and risk-taking, which once drove our economic engine, was built on an equally profound love of invention and science -- the spirit of Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison. That excitement needs to be rekindled at full flame. Irrational environmentalist scares and pseudoscience must be refuted.

And some way has to be found to reform a public school system that, for a dozen years, has proven nearly impervious to all reform efforts.