Mathematical frontiersDecline in math and science education imperils U.S.

Published 30 April 2008

Two years ago the National Academies published an alarming report on the decline in math and science education in the United States; yesterday, the National Math and Science Initiative held a summit in Washington, D.C. to assess the progress made in the past two years — if any

Great powers come and go, but as we have opined on several occasions during the past year, the United States appears determined to accelerate its own decline. Here are but two related, and mutually reinforcing, examples: The United States has an immigration policy which allows hundreds of thousands of uneducated or little-educated immigrants to come into the country legally each year — but which severely limits the number of engineers, scientists, and other highly educated professionals allowed to come in to help the U.S. hi-tech sector. The United States needs all these foreign-born engineers and scientists because American schools no longer produce enough of them. The decline in the number of graduates in mathematics and engineering has been as steady as it is worrisome. Two years ago the National Academies published an alarming report on the issue. Written by a blue-ribbon committee, the report, titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” warned that the United States is falling behind in math and science education, endangering America’s competitiveness and national security. The report’s summary read:

In a world where advanced knowledge is widespread and low-cost labor is readily available, U.S. advantages in the marketplace and in science and technology have begun to erode. A comprehensive and coordinated federal effort is urgently needed to bolster U.S. competitiveness and pre-eminence in these areas. This congressionally requested report by a pre-eminent committee makes four recommendations along with 20 implementation actions that federal policy-makers should take to create high-quality jobs and focus new science and technology efforts on meeting the nation’s needs, especially in the area of clean, affordable energy:

  1. Increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education
  2. Sustain and strengthen the nation’s commitment to long-term basic research
  3. Develop, recruit, and retain top students, scientists, and engineers from both the U.S. and abroad
  4. Ensure that the United States is the premier place in the world for innovation

Some actions will involve changing existing laws, while others will require financial support that would come from reallocating existing budgets or increasing them.

It is thus good to see that there is an organization dedicated to addressing — and arresting — the pernicious decline and math and science education in the United States. The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) held a summit in Washington, D.C. yesterday. The summit was a gathering of top leaders in education, business, government, mathematics, and science, and its purpose was to address the alarming decline in American competitiveness and preeminence in science and technology. The summit was appropriately called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm — Two Years Later: Accelerating Progress toward a Brighter Economic Future,” and in addition to NMSI, other sponsoring organizations included the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. In the coming days we will report about the presentations and discussions at this important gathering.