TCS Daily

The Swine Flu Solution: Fund the Best Minds in Science

By Joann P. DiGennaro - June 4, 2009 12:00 AM

Spurred by the spread of swine flu, President Barack Obama recently called for more than 3 percent of our nation's GDP to be spent on research and development, saying "[T]his represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history."

The president noted that the swine flu scare demonstrates that "one thing is clear: our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific and medical community. And this is one more example of why we can't allow our nation to fall behind."

But falling behind we are. The critical reason is the significant deficiencies in teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills in the United States. Look at the facts:

  • Federal funding in the physical sciences as a portion of GDP has fallen by nearly half in the past 25 years.
  • Our schools lag behind other developed countries and even some developing countries.
  • American 14-year-olds ranked 25th in math and 21st in science when compared to nations around the world.

During a recent trip to China, I visited several "Key High Schools" created to identify and prepare China's most promising high school students for careers in science and technology. China is spending millions to support advanced learning and labs in each of these high schools that, when compared to U.S. facilities, make even some of our university labs outdated.

President Hu Jintao indicated that the Chinese are placing a great emphasis on encouraging their brightest students in order to further their country's economic and military development. By explicitly connecting education policy to national objectives, China has taken a long-term approach to training its talent for the next century. An analysis of Chinese development in science and technology published last year found that the country's senior scientists and technology experts are expected to make training their own young people their first priority.

Similarly, on a recent official trip to India for the U.S. State Department, I visited secondary schools, colleges, and information technology training facilities ALL of which focused on rapid growth of STEM training and the push to nurture science careers in India's young. Then-President Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam announced that India's economic plan will target support for young scholars as a means of reaching its national economic policy goals. India is putting special emphasis on information technology through "Operation Knowledge," a national campaign to encourage students in IT related fields.

By comparison, here at home, less than 70 percent of U.S. high school science teachers feel confident in their ability to manage hands-on labs, and some 70 percent of teachers feel they are deficient in the use of the current technology. Only 13 states require enrollment in a single lab science course part of their standard high school graduation requirements. Among the contributing factors for poor lab skills are lack of laboratory coursework by students (many having none at all), lack of teacher training in lab science, poor-to-failing lab equipment, the high cost of specimens, cutbacks in school budgets, and fear of litigation resulting from lab accidents.

The result is a complete lack of quality laboratory instruction in our nation's science and engineering high school classrooms. From the Center for Excellence in Education's (CEE) USA Biology Olympiad and its Research Science Institute it is evident that inadequate lab facilities, insufficient training for teachers and unsatisfactory lab curricula exist even among our nation's best and brightest students.

In order for the United States to compete globally and continue to lead in innovation we need to do the following:

  • At the strategic level, the United States must establish a policy for nurturing its most talented science and technology students and integrate this policy with a long-term vision of U.S. economic and national security. The White House and State Department should make this task a priority.
  • The next step should be a thorough assessment of all government educational programs focused on science and math. Shockingly, there are few quality assessments and little coordination among governmental agencies for the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on educational programs from kindergarten through the undergraduate level. There is not even a comprehensive system that tracks what educational programs at agencies are sponsored for students from kindergarten through college, how many international students are in the United States under programs of the various government agencies, or what happens to international scholars when they complete their studies here.
  • Some of the millions of dollars devoted to U.S. educational programs must be reallocated for the most talented high school students. The government should support such efforts to enrich learning experiences for the highest-achieving students so that they can maximize their potential. A system of performance measurements would help determine which programs are least effective and could be canceled to provide the funds for this initiative, which would also be guided by performance metrics.
  • Eliminating the limited Javits Gifted and Talented Education Program, as the Obama Administration announced two weeks ago is obviously a step in the wrong direction. Similarly, the tragic demise of NSF's legendarily successful Young Scholars Program is an enormous loss to the U.S. STEM community. Rather, Obama should be following the lead of JFK who, when acknowledging the U.S. had fallen significantly behind the Soviets in the Space Race, launched the "New Frontier" which ambitiously promised federal funding for education. The individual states -- also terrified by the Soviet Sputnik launch -- followed JFK's lead, as did California in 1961 with the "Mentally Gifted Minors" Act.
  • Finally, Congress must fund the America COMPETES Act of 2007. This Act, signed by President Bush in August 2007, promised increased science funding. The legislation has languished in Congress, unfunded, for almost three years.
  • President Obama should demonstrate his "commitment to scientific research and innovation" through support of the the first-ever National Lab Skills Symposium which will focus on the deplorable state of high school laboratory teaching in America and the importance of that instruction in assuring a future, diverse, talented U.S. STEM workforce. This National Lab Skills Symposium will take place in April of 2010, in Washington, D.C. At this Symposium, the Center for Excellence in Education will bring together members of congress, agency heads, corporate leaders, top academics, NGOs, education advocates and foundation executives to discuss the status of STEM education in the United States and to address shortcomings in science teaching and student learning. The attendees will focus on the critical importance of lab skills development; discuss what is needed for scientific educational achievement; and develop the gold standard for lab instruction in the United States. CEE plans to roll out these "best practices" models in several states by 2012.

As President Obama remarked early on in his campaign, "To restore America's competitiveness, we must recruit a new generation of science and technology leaders." This crisis must be addressed for the U.S. to retain its worldwide innovative and global competitive edge. For the last century, America has been the STEM leader in the world. That will no longer be the case if we do not act.

Joann P. DiGennaro, Esq., is the President and founder, with the late Admiral H.G. Rickover, of the Center for Excellence in Education, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation in McLean, VA. The Center sponsors the Research Science Institute with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It also sponsors the USA Biology Olympiad and other research and competitive opportunities for high school and college students interested in STEM careers. You can reach Ms. DiGennaro at


Pull, don't push
Science and math are hard work. An engineering BS requires at least 128 credit hours. Recently business graduates, with fewer requirements were able to make significant sums on Wall Street.

Cut capital gains taxes and any other tax tax that encourages manufacturing to move off-shore, cut the red tape for manufacturing plants to be built, cut the red tape for nuclear power facilities, etc.

Create more economic opportunities for STEM graduates and you will get more. It is really that simple.

Basic research
The reason so many of our finest young minds have been going into the financial sector is that that's where their best opportunities for success have been. And the problem is, an emphasis on juggling money in an abstruse world of hedge funds, derivatives and exotic instruments so hard to comprehend that they're really air ware, is ultimately useless, from an economic point of view. As we have seen to our distress.

We should have been emphasizing manufacturing.. for the reason that a third of the population is not that talented at higher economics and is unsuited to desk jobs. They need machines they can operate, to build things we can sell to others, and improve our balance of trade in some actual, tangible way.

And we should be emphasizing pure research, as the author says in the article. I'll agree with you that it's best to have the pull of potential salaries out there. But there are areas in basic research that no profit-oriented company finds it in their interest to invest big bucks on.

Like it or not, that's a job best suited to government. So I would stand behind an increase in grants for basic research. For as long as these have been cut, the nation has fallen behind. We need to catch back up.

I'm not worried about flu research. Everyone in the loop understands that while the latest strain, H1N1, hasn't been such a grave threat yet, it could mutate next year and come back to start killing people en masse. That's the way flu operates. So the bucks will be there, in that area.

Also defense research. That's an area I'll guarantee without looking it up is currently thriving. After 9-11 no amount was too great to throw at national defense. It was a huge gravy train for anyone who could pretend to be working on a death ray that only killed bad guys.

But I suspect we don't have that many gifted young folks working in particle physics. There's little interest in it. Strange, considering that we still haven't solved the basic problem of providing unlimited energy to a limited world.

Basic research is needed. And outfits like BP, Mobil and Exxon only fund enough to be able to put a bit of green in their ads.. and to snatch up some patents before they see the light of day. So that leaves federal grants to our major independent research institutions, ones that still study subjects "of scientific interest".

What basic research?
Who decides what to research?

Basic research like the Hadron collider may a good example as is the gravity wave detector. Their purpose is to prove or disprove very fundamental ideas in physics.

In any case, basic or applied research does not pay well as the Principle Investigators are the research professors and the workers are the grad students.

As for defense research, making rocket launches cheaper is good, powerful lasers to shoot down missiles can be used for fusion, GPS guided missiles and UAVs should be adapted for commercial aircraft to make them more efficient.
Digital communications technology started with defense research. Defense research is a twofer, it helps defend the nation and advances technology.

Who decides what to research?
The research I'm talking about is the questions being raised by the researchers themselves. "Pure science", in the sense that it is not directed at creating a product that can be sold to someone. Just interesting questions posed by the nature of the universe.

A great many good things come from this kind of research. And it has gotten short shrift for a number of years, due to having people in government who see these trifling expenses as being expendable, as they trim the budget.

But it's just this kind of science that increases our knowledge of how everything works. And it's done best when it's all open source. Corporate-funded science tends to be narrow in scope.. how to create a new erection drug that's not quite like all the others, and patent it fast so no one else will own it.

When you patent pieces of knowledge, placing them off limits to other researchers, you stifle progress in knowledge for all. THAT is one of the principle reasons why the pace of progress has slacked off so greatly in recent years. We have much knowledge that's privately owned, and so can't be used.

Again, who decides what basic research to do?
Believe it or not, government money is not infinite. Someone must decide what basic research to fund and what not to fund.
Who decides and how will they make that decision?

Here is one way:

"The Basic Research Challenge (BRC) program supports basic science and/or engineering research within academia and industry. The program is focused on stimulating new, high-risk basic research projects.
The BRC for FY 2009 is for the three (3) topics listed below. The detailed descriptions are intended to provide the proposer a frame of reference and are not meant to be restrictive to the possible approaches to achieving the goals of the topic and the program. Innovative ideas addressing these research topics are highly encouraged. White papers and full proposals addressing the following BRC topics are solicited:
(1) Irreducible Uncertainty and the Limits of Predictability
(2) Elastomeric Polymer-by-Design to Protect the Warfighter against Traumatic Brain Injury by Diverting the Blast Induced Shock Waves from the Head
(3) DNA-based Molecular-scale Nanoelectronics Fabrication"

"The Multidisciplinary Research Program of the University Research Initiative (MURI) is a multi-agency DoD program that supports research teams whose efforts intersect more than one traditional science and engineering discipline. Multidisciplinary team effort can accelerate research progress in areas particularly suited to this approach. Multidisciplinary research also can help to hasten the transition of research findings to practical application.

MURI awards are made in research topics specified by the participating defense agencies each year that the program is in force. Specified topics change each year. Awards are typically for a period of three years (funded incrementally or as options) with two additional years possible as options to bring the total award to five-years, and at a funding level ranging from half a million to about a million dollars per year, with the size of the award dependent upon the topic, technical goals, and availability of appropriations.

Oops, its funded by the Navy and doesn't count, right?

Wasn't that just answered?
I swear, you must have a head of solid bone.

Research directions are always being suggested by the researchers themselves. Their seniors and supervisers, in an academic setting, recommend which of those directions are worth proceeding in more than others. Yes, some triage is involved.

In the end it should probably go before an academic board, like the NAS. You can't get higher in the field than that. But then we come up with a problem. According to the Flat Earth crowd, the NAS are all out to destroy our freedoms, and substitute a reign of Stalinist terror with wizards wearing pointy hats at the top of the heap.

So let's consider in turn that the military be placed in charge of this function, as it is already in charge of so much of how our tax dollars get spent. Their choice? More weapons of death. And vastly more programs like DARPA, where they are able to hone their ability to track and control the activities of every human on earth.

Humans, in this world, are all suspect until proven not to be the enemy. You might think DARPA's an essential program, so they can all be controlled by Central Command (CentCom).

If you think that's what we really need, vote for the military. And if you think science is a sincere quest for knowledge in a world that badly needs it, leave research decisions to the scientists.

Researchers don't pay the bills.
They beg for money from the government.

Who then decides to whom the checks should go and who signs the checks and why?

You did not answer that question.
The government does fund much research through its FFRDCs.

Tainted research
If the Navy's research into cold fusion is successful or if the Army's research into fuel cells is successful, you wouldn't use it because it was funded by the military?

You're on a rant..
Again, that question was just answered.

No, it was not.
I guess you don't understand the scientific community.

Maybe you could explain it for me
"I guess you don't understand the scientific community."

Scientists I've known in the academic community have pet projects they'd like to work on. And so they look for funding for those projects, which are commonly very expensive.

Those that don't get government grants to proceed end up taking jobs in industry. There, they do whatever their supervisers tell them needs doing.

Increasingly, government funding to research universities comes in the form of Defense Department grants. Such research is usually highly specific, where the DoD tells them exactly what they want them to be working on. Working at close direction under such funding is very much like working in the private sector. You do what the grantor tells you to do.

What's lacking in this setup is money for "blue sky" research, where the researcher gets to go wherever the research takes him.

But you were about to tell me something entirely different. Go ahead, please.

Take up a collection for blue sky research
"What's lacking in this setup is money for "blue sky" research, where the researcher gets to go wherever the research takes him."

How do you justify spending OPM (other people's money) on such blue sky research?

There are a few private sources of such money, but one still must have demonstrated some level of competency.

Again, you don't answer, who decides what blue sky research to fund, how much, etc?

Want more blue sky research? Create more billionaires.
Foundations created by billionaire provide million in grants every year.
I can't recall the name, but there is a prize awarded to unsuspecting individuals in all sorts of fields to allow these individuals to conduct their blue sky research.
The foundations can do this because it is their money, not yours and mine.
But you have demonstrated you don't want billionaires. Liberalism is a mental disorder.

Howard Hughes Medical Insitute
When Howard Hughes had to give up day to day control of Hughes Aircraft Co, he created the HHMI to own HAC and receive any profits from the company, tax free.
So the US government purchased defense systems from HAC, profits went to HHMI and the HAC was not required to answer to shareholders and could engage in more 'blue sky' research at Hughes Research Lab in Malibu.
But the government didn't think this was fair and forced HHMI to sell HAC.

"HHMI, a non-profit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation's largest philanthropies, plays a powerful role in advancing biomedical research and science education in the U.S. In the past two decades HHMI has made investments of more than $8.3 billion for the support, training, and education of the nation's most creative and promising scientists. The Institute commits almost $700 million a year for research and distributes more than $80 million in grant support for science education. "

"Founded in 1953 by Howard R. Hughes, the aviator and industrialist, HHMI is headquartered in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and employs more than 2,900 individuals across the U.S. It has an endowment of $17.5 billion. "

"The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Hughes Aircraft Company are chartered in Delaware on December 17. The charter states: "The primary purpose and objective of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute shall be the promotion of human knowledge within the field of the basic sciences (principally the field of medical research and medical education) and the effective application thereof for the benefit of mankind."

Upon the creation of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Mr. Hughes is its sole trustee. All 75,000 shares of the Hughes Aircraft Company stock are now owned by HHMI, and a portion of the company's profits will begin to be used for medical research. "

"here are about 350 Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators, who continue to push the bounds of knowledge in many of the hottest areas in biomedical research. Widely recognized for their creativity and productivity, the current group of HHMI investigators includes 13 Nobel Prize winners and 124 members of the National Academy of Sciences.

HHMI urges its researchers to take risks, to explore unproven avenues, to embrace the unknown—even if it means uncertainty or the chance of failure. HHMI investigators have made many important research advances - from the discovery of genes related to cystic fibrosis, obesity, high blood pressure, colon cancer and other diseases, to new insights about memory, vision and olfaction. M"

But it is much better for the government to do this and let politicians argue over how and where to spend our money.

You're becoming an incessant bore
"Again, you don't answer, who decides what blue sky research to fund, how much, etc?

For gods sake. You can't look this up yourself? Here are a few places to look, among many hundreds:

There are 1,720,000 other places on Google to look. Would that have been so hard for you to do?

Who decides who get the checks and why?
Some bureaucrat.

MacArthur Fellows, paid for by a billionaire's foundation
" The MacArthur Foundation today named 25 new MacArthur Fellows for 2008. This past week, the recipients learned in a single phone call from the Foundation that they will each receive $500,000 in “no strings attached” support over the next five years. The new Fellows work across a broad spectrum of endeavors and include a neurobiologist, a saxophonist, a critical care physician, an urban farmer, an optical physicist, a sculptor, a geriatrician, a historian of medicine, and an inventor of musical instruments. All were selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.

“The MacArthur Fellows Program celebrates extraordinarily creative individuals who inspire new heights in human achievement,” said MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton. “With their boldness, courage, and uncommon energy, this new group of Fellows, men and women of all ages in diverse fields, exemplifies the boundless nature of the human mind and spirit.” "

"John Donald MacArthur (1897-1978) was one of the three wealthiest men in America at the time of his death, and was sole owner of the nation's largest privately held insurance company.

One of seven children, Mr. MacArthur was born in an impoverished coal-producing area of eastern Pennsylvania. His three brothers who survived childhood all achieved success in their fields: Alfred in insurance, Telfer in publishing, and Charles as a newsman, playwright, and Hollywood screen writer. John held several jobs, including stints as a newspaper reporter, as an insurance salesman in his brother's company, and in three unsuccessful business ventures, before turning to insurance as his life's work."

The more billionaires we have the more money will be available for 'blue sky' research.

So now we're dependent on the kindness of billionaires?
That's quite a system you've got there.

Billionariaires' foundations have done more than government.
I thought you supported effective measures?

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