Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Need for Science and Math Teachers (Who actually know science and math!)

Building on the theme of some recent posts, the future of the United States depends on its science and technology base, and a continued lead over the rest of the world in these areas. In addition to the fact that more and more of the higher paying jobs, and those that will be evolving in the information age, are technical in nature, the major issues and problems that dominate the political landscape are largely dependent on science to figure out the solutions. We have a problem with this from the start, unfortunately. In order to continue to build the science and technology based economy, or compete in an ever-increasingly competitive technical world, or to find solutions to science-related problems, we need scientists. We won't build the numbers of scientists unless we have teachers who can teach younger generations of students the basic science needed in college, or inspire students to pursue science in college and beyond. And we are reaching the point in many school districts around the nation where we don't have the teachers to complete this first, vital step in the process.

In a report put out by the Department of Education, 36% of high school math teachers and 27% of high school science teachers did NOT major in math or science in college. This means about 1 in three students around the country are being taught by non-experts. Many districts do have staff development programs in place, as well as mentoring programs, but fundamentally many teachers are working hard to do their best, but with limited knowledge and training in the field they are teaching. This is not an ideal situation.

It is difficult to imagine this will improve any time soon. In 2004-05, for example, 22 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in U.S. colleges and universities were in business; 11 percent were in social sciences; 7 percent in education; and 6 percent in psychology.

Just 1 percent of undergraduate degrees were in math or science. This makes for a limited pool of subject-trained members of the job market. For those small numbers who go into teaching, about half will leave the teaching profession altogether after 3-4 years. Low pay (compared to other professional fields) for the some times overwhelming amount of work teachers must do
chase out large percentages of new teachers. For instance, "in 2003, the median salary for full-time high school math and science teachers was $43,000. That compares to median salaries ranging between $50,000 and $72,000 for professionals with comparable educational backgrounds such as computer systems analysts, engineers, accountants or financial specialists, in the same year, according to the National Science Board."

In the final analysis, the lack of strong, scientifically trained teachers will continue to hurt younger students coming up through the pipeline. This will almost certainly have further negative effects on our ability as a nation to solve serious, complex, science and technology related problems. It will have a long-term effect on the stability of our economy. It will have long-term efffects on our standing in a technical, globally competitive world and marketplace. And I don't see it improving when our leaders decide to further cut funding at some of our best science resources and training grounds, the national labs. The next President absolutely needs to work on this problem, because it is, in my opinion, one of the absolute keys to the future our nation will be able realize.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

UN Chief Says Water Shortages Are #1 Concern

I often tell students that the one issue that can lead to the most numbers of conflicts worldwide is the looming shortage of clean drinking water, the one material humans cannot do without for basic survival. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has now publicly made this same statement and is calling for this to become the world's top priority for 2008.

Coming from an article on Yahoo! News,
"He said a recent report identified 46 countries with 2.7 billion people where climate change and water-related crises create "a high risk of violent conflict" and a further 56 countries, with 1.2 billion people "are at high risk of violent conflict." The report was by International Alert, an independent peacebuilding organization based in London.

Ban told the VIP audience that he spent 2007 "banging my drum on climate change," an issue the Forum also had as one of its main themes last year. He welcomed the focus on water this year saying the session should be named: "Water is running out."

"We need to adapt to this reality, just as we do to climate change," he said. "There is still enough water for all of us — but only so long as we can keep it clean, use it more wisely, and share it fairly."

This is one of those issues that science will need to help solve in the long-term, but short-term there are both financial and political problems that need to be addressed in portions of the world where chaos tends to reign supreme politically, and water is desperately limited. Climate change will be affecting rainfall worldwide, and instability looms for certain governments if its citizens begin to have health concerns because of a lack of water. It is also important to remember that unsanitary conditions will also help encourage and propagate illness and disease. The next President of the United States will likely have to deal with new regional conflicts and humanitarian crises because of water shortages around the world. New technologies, international cooperation between governments, NGOs, and the private sector, and strong political will to take action in a relatively short period of time will be required if we want to try and save literally countless millions of people from this crisis.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

A Case for Obama

The Democratic race for President has heated up with the Iowa caucus results and surging momentum of the campaign for Barack Obama. It was always assumed that Hillary Clinton was to inherit the Democratic throne, in part because the Democratic base still is largely loyal to Bill Clinton. The Clinton network is vast, and fund raising capabilities are as strong as one can imagine. But that entrenched network has been shown to be vulnerable by Obama. Of course, immediately after the Iowa results, the attacks came his way. Leading the way is the argument of lack of experience. But what does that mean, exactly?

There is a case to be made that Obama lacks executive experience. What large organization or bureaucracy has he ever led? That is a valid point. The trouble is, look at who is making that argument – Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. They, being lawyers and Senators, also have no executive experience, so their attacks in this venue are simply invalid and hypocritical. Someone like Bill Richardson, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee can legitimately separate themselves from the Senators on this point, as they are Governors and a mayor of one of the largest economies in the world, New York City. John McCain cannot claim executive experience, either, for the same reason as the other Senators. Generally, though, a new President appoints a chief of staff who is largely responsible for day to day running of the administration, so I personally don’t place executive experience as high as ideas/principles or foreign policy experience.

When it comes to foreign policy experience, however, think about the Presidents over the past thirty years, since the days of Jimmy Carter. Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and G.W. Bush were governors. Governors generally have no true experience with foreign policy. The only one with experience in that realm was G.H.W. Bush, who at least had experience as a Vice President and director of the CIA. I would argue that Obama has more experience with thinking about and dealing with foreign policy matters (this includes national security issues, which governors typically don’t deal with directly) in two years of the Senate than four of the five last presidents had when they took office. This holds true for Senators Clinton, Edwards, and McCain, as well. Presidents appoint top experts in foreign policy and national security matters to their cabinet and as advisors, so it is actually more important to have a President who is willing to listen to arguments about a given situation, look at evidence and data, and then make a decision.

On this point, I have to go with Obama. He is known as one who wants to talk with experts in a given field to get the best information and data, and use those data as the basis of a decision. I think back to when the Congress was debating whether to give Bush a blank check and the authority to do as he pleases with the ‘war on terror,’ which of course led to the Iraq War. Clinton and Edwards voted to give Bush the authority, while Obama said as a state senator he opposed such authority. What I have a problem with when it comes to Clinton and Edwards is their lack of identifying and basing their vote on evidence, which points to the two of them as following a political decision to go along with a very popular president (Bush was at something like 80+% approval at that time, following the 9/11/01 attacks). The evidence I mention came from the inspectors who were on the ground in Iraq at the time of the congressional vote. They were given sites to check out by the CIA and other foreign intelligence services as they searched for WMDs. They had access to those sites, including Saddam’s presidential palaces. These were high-probability sites for WMD, as evaluated by intelligence services. The inspectors found nothing at any of the sites. This was direct evidence that our intelligence was flawed at best. The inspectors pleaded for more time to check out more of the country, but once given authority, Bush ordered the inspectors out and the invasion began shortly thereafter. The votes for giving Bush authority, from both Republicans and those Democrats who went along, is unacceptable to me. People who ignored direct evidence that intelligence was flawed, and gave authority to ultimately go to war based on that poor intelligence, are not who I want in the Oval Office making decisions of this magnitude.

What is left? Senators Clinton and Edwards cannot attack Obama on executive experience since they are in the same situation, and the attack on lack of foreign policy experience does not hold water based on presidential history and precedent. In fact, I would also argue that Obama has another important edge because of his expertise with constitutional law, as he has been a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Clinton, Edwards, and McCain cannot make suc a claim.

I also think there is some logic to Obama’s argument to look at where ‘experience’ in Washington has gotten us. We have had no progress with any of the major issues we face. Social security, Medicare, energy policy (let’s face it, going up to 35 mpg by the year 2020 is lame! It should be 50 mpg minimum, if not more, with over a decade of new science and technology development…), infrastructure maintenance, port security, immigration, deficit reduction, and so on, are no different now than years ago when Edwards, Clinton, McCain and others (Biden, Dodd) have been in office.

New ideas, new energy, and a new mindset might just be the true answer to making progress on any of these problems. Obama has those types of characteristics, which is why I think many find him appealing. And he has two years in Washington under his belt, just enough to know how the current system works (or doesn’t work), while still being fresh enough to have better connection with us everyday folks. Remember, he came into all this as one of us…not wealthy, a middle class upbringing, challenges faced by minorities as he came up the ranks, working as a low-paid community activist after Harvard (when he could have had just about any job with a major law firm in the country) and little to no privilege. He may even know what the cost of a gallon of milk is.

I just think if voters really think about all this, the main arguments and attacks Clinton and Edwards have already begun to make to bring down Obama really won’t have the impact they’re intended to make. Obama’s chances of winning in New Hampshire depends greatly on turnout, particularly first time voters and the under-30 portion of the electorate, in order to beat Hillary and the Democratic establishment in the Northeast. It happened in Iowa, and now we will see if New Hampshire follows. After watching the frenzy he had the state Democrats in last night, at the annual dinner where all the remaining candidates spoke, and this morning’s campaign stop at a Nashua high school, where they had to open an entire wing of the school for the overflow crowd, his momentum is still strong and perhaps growing even stronger. What’s more, the polls of likely voters being shown by the press are not good indicators of who will win since the voting blocks Obama dominates will not be included in the polling samples. Those are simply news items to keep the press occupied at this point, as historically low turnout groups are likely to come out in unprecedented numbers with Obama in the race.

Further Decline in US Science Commitment

If there is one issue everyone tends to agree on, it is that in our global, competitive, technical world, the future of the US economy and position as a superpower is dependent on our science research and technology foundation, which has led the world since WWII. No other country in the world can come close to matching our science and R&D infrastructure, which consists of the merging of the entire university system, government funding and facilities, and private investment from business and industry. Scientists from around the world come here in droves to make use of American universities and national labs to do their cutting-edge research.

A looming problem, however, is we may lose this edge in science and technology because of a numbers game. When the baby-boom generation of scientists and engineers retires, there are small numbers of American students in the pipeline, meaning we anticipate severe problems replacing our current scientists. Well, the US government is on the verge of making this problem worse, further threatening our long-range world status and economic development. As reported in the Jan. 4, 2008, Chicago Tribune, there will be significant budget cuts for many of our national laboratories, including Fermilab and Argonne, both of which are outside Chicago.

This is ironic because my last post from just a couple days ago addresses major issues we face politically, environmentally, educationally, economically, and militarily. The issues are all connected intimately with science and technology. What political leaders, who control the budgets of national labs as they are run through the Department of Energy, continue to NOT understand, is that pure research is on an equal footing with applied research. What is more troubling is that the president, just last August, signed into law the America Competes Act, which was supposed to significantly increase our commitment to science and technology development. But the new budgetary priorities make no sense whatsoever.

I have argued many times the importance of pure research, which is what we typically do at national labs, certainly Fermilab and a good amount at Argonne. Pure and applied research go hand-in-hand, and just because one does not necessarily get a 'useful product' that can be sold from pure research does not make the knowledge attained meaningless or less valuable.

In addition to losing some amount of research in a variety of fields from the looming budget cuts, hundreds of high-tech jobs and positions will be cut. I fear another mini-exodus of American science talent, as happened when Congress, in its ultimate wisdom, pulled the funding entirely from the Superconducting Supercollider back in the early 1990s. Hundreds of American high-energy physics graduate students, technicians and professors have left research positions and collaborations here in the US and now do the bulk of their research in Europe, as the Large Hadron Collider is set to turn on later this spring, which will surpass Fermilab.

National labs help form the training grounds for future US scientists, engineers, computer experts and mathematicians. Why would we even consider making it more difficult to attract young students into any technical field? Rhetoric is one thing, but actions and budget priorities show one's true intensions. Students will see this lack of real commitment to jobs and training and research, and simply move into a different career path. Our future depends on our science and technology base, period. We are simply shooting ourselves in the foot long-term with decisions being made today.

If you are concerned about this lack of commitment to our future, please contact your congressional Representative and Senators and demand that we make real efforts to building and growing our science and technology base, not cutting it and discouraging young people from pursuing careers that are vital to keeping the US strong.