Can science still promise a brighter future?

Ensuring the quality of future physicians and scientists depends on the support given to science education today, experts say.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted April 17, 2006

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Washington -- Federal health leaders met March 21 to consider ways to jump-start an apparent waning of the nation's interest in the sciences, a phenomenon some fear could cause an erosion in future generations' living standards.

Science can be credited with advances that increased life expectancy from 46 years at the beginning of the last century to 77 years by its close, noted Ralph Cicerone, PhD, National Academy of Sciences president. Antibiotics, improved nutrition and clean water can be cited as playing a role in those gains, he said at the annual meeting of Research America, a research advocacy organization in Washington.

Lately, concerns have been raised about whether the nation can maintain its competitive edge and continue to put science to work for societal gain, said Research America President Mary Woolley.

A National Academy of Sciences report released last fall drew attention to indicators that point up the need for support of long-term basic research and recruitment of the brightest students, both here and abroad, for careers in science and medicine.

According to the document, U.S. 12th-graders performed below the international average of 21 countries on a test of general knowledge in math and science. And, in 1999, only 41% of eighth-graders had a math teacher who had majored in mathematics at the undergraduate or graduate level or studied the subject for teacher certification, a figure below the 71% international average.

Panel members offered a variety of insights and suggestions to reverse this disheartening trend.

For instance, it is critically important research experience be received in high school, said Arden Bement Jr., PhD, director of the National Science Foundation. "If they start young, they get hooked on research."

A difficulty is that the paths of young researchers have become lengthier and more rigid, said Elias Zerhouni, MD, director of the National Institutes of Health. Whereas decades ago, NIH grantees were often 35 years old, now 39-year-olds are typically receiving their first grants, he said. "Bright young people are more likely to go into investment banking."

Excitement can also fizzle if the health care system fails to deliver on scientific discoveries, said Carolyn Clancy, MD, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. "It seems clear that we need stronger bridges between science and treatment."

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