It’s science, stupid

Vikram Reddy and Jessica Knoll

STEM, the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math, is bandied about regarding the educational needs of American children to both function in an increasingly technological world and to find a career.

Political candidates from both parties this election cycle argue that there are many systemic problems in America and that our children are at risk of inheriting a significantly diminished society.

■U.S. students rank 27th out of 64 countries in regards to science based on the Program for International Student Assessment in 2012.

■American scientific research appears to be in decline compared to Europe and Asia.

■Federal funding for research and development in basic science is the lowest it has been in four decades as a percentage of GDP.

Much of this is a false narrative, however. U.S. students are in the middle of the pack when it comes to standardized tests compared to other industrial countries, but we have never been at the top.

Yes, scientific research in Europe and Asia may be increasing compared to the U.S., but European and Asian students still flock to American universities because of their reputation — there is no brain drain occurring now or in the near future.

Federal investment in R&D may be the lowest rate it has been, but this is a victim of a generalized tightening on discretionary spending rather than an overt act by either political party. Moreover, the argument that schools need to modify teaching practices in order to produce a certain percentage of engineers and scientists in our labor force may not be valid.

If American schools are doing a good job, why should parents worry? There is something more important than trying to adjust teaching standards to anticipate labor needs: citizenship in a democracy.

The British scientist and novelist, C.P. Snow, delivered a lecture in 1959 at Cambridge entitled, “The Two Cultures.” The lecture describes how the humanities and the sciences had become two separate spheres and this split could be calamitous for England.

As detailed by Professor Lisa Jardine, Snow was speaking directly to the British ruling class in a post-World War II setting where investment in science and technology had helped the Allies to victory. Snow was convinced that the leaders of the United Kingdom needed to have an understanding of science in order to effectively make decisions in a modern society.

A strong education in math and science can yield the knowledge and ability for critical thinking that will prevent people from falling prey to half-truths and manipulation. So long as scientifically agreed upon facts are considered a la carte items depending on your political party and citizens accept policy decisions untethered from strong objective evidence, then we will continue to have arguments with ad hominem attacks.

An investment in science can allow all citizens to partake in the complex debates of the day (climate change, the efficacy of vaccines and the potability of public water) and hold our elected officials accountable. No one can be expected to be an expert, but it is our responsibility to make sure that our children are able to partake in the debate.

Vikram Reddy is a plastic surgeon in southeast Michigan. Jessica Knoll is a mathematics teacher at L’anse Creuse High School.