Canary in the research lab  pg. 4

“But when you have limited resources, it’s harder for those guppies to survive,” Brown says. “There are more predators. What we really need is a model like raising mammals, where you nurture people along.”

It’s an apt analogy. Not only is the next generation of scientists at risk, but so is the next generation of their ideas—and the potential breakthroughs that could result.

“What the lack of funding always does in any ecosystem is halt innovation,” argues Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs.

“If the NIH isn’t funding the less innovative sciences, the universities can, but they can only do that for so long because there’s only so much money,” Balser says. “At the end of the day, the impact of a declining NIH budget is less money for pursuing highly innovative ideas.”

In May 2005, U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, asked the National Academies, which include the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, to assess the nation’s “ability to compete and prosper in the 21st century.”

In response, the academies formed a blue-ribbon committee of experts in a wide range of fields, from engineering to genetics.

The committee’s report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” was submitted to Congress five months later. It called for, among other things, recruiting 10,000 science and math teachers each year, encouraging young people to earn college degrees in science by providing scholarships, and increasing federal investment in long-term basic research.

“The most important barrier that must be surmounted is the poor science knowledge of the teachers who are responsible for teaching science to our students,” says Roy Vagelos, M.D., retired chairman and CEO of Merck & Co. who served on the committee that produced the report.

“Many of the secondary school teachers of biology, physics, and chemistry have not majored in those subjects; some have never had a major course in the subject they are teaching,” says Vagelos, a member of the board of the National Math and Science Initiative. “The same can be said for all of the sciences.”

The report led to passage in 2007 of the America COMPETES Act, which among other things would increase recruitment and scholarship funding for future K-12 science and math teachers, advance the knowledge base of existing teachers through continuing education programs, and provide more science and research opportunities to middle and high school students. As yet, however, the law has not been fully funded.

Another challenge to the nation’s research enterprise cited in the 2005 report: visa laws that restrict foreign-born, American-trained scientists from taking jobs in the United States.

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