Yale Bulletin and Calendar

May 10, 2002Volume 30, Number 29Two-Week Issue















Improving science education and research in U.S. is key to meeting 'challenges to innovation,' say experts

In order for the United States to maintain its position as a world leader in technological advances and innovation, improvements must be made in science and engineering education, government funds for basic science research and the quality of life around the globe -- so said the speakers at a forum on May 3 celebrating the 150th anniversary of engineering at Yale.

Titled "Challenges to Innovation in the 21st Century," the event brought together leaders from industry, academia and government. Paul Fleury, dean of Yale Engineering, moderated the forum.

In his keynote address, President Richard C. Levin hailed the key role that U.S. universities play both in training the next generation of scientists and engineers and in advancing the national research enterprise. "The teaching in American universities contributes mightily to technological leadership and ultimately economic growth," he said.

But, Levin warned, "We mustn't be complacent. We must invest heavily in science and engineering at Yale. The fate of our students, nation and the global economy depends on us."

With its strong base of arts and humanities, Yale has done a better job of humanizing the study of engineering than most other engineering programs, said Levin. In fact, he noted, Yale engineers have the breadth of education that makes them likely to succeed not just technically but as leaders within the workplace.

Levin also said that Americans should not feel threatened by the idea that foreign students are taking the engineering education they receive at American schools back to their own countries.

"Yale is pitching very hard to attract students from around the world," he said. "We have benefited from contributions of foreign students, and we won't be destroyed by people 'stealing' our ideas. We should not feel that we've lost something, because the whole world benefits from innovation, no matter where it originates."

In his talk, Henry B. Schacht, chair of Lucent Technologies Inc. who represented the world of industry, contended that the growing disparity in the standard of living is one of the major challenges to innovation.

"Innovation is dependent on having a stable and peaceful society," he said. "There has been an undisputed growth in income disparity between 1990 and 2000, and failure to try to close the gap will put peace and society at risk. We have clearly learned how to attain wealth. We must now demonstrate our capacity to distribute the wealth more equitably." He added that providing a better standard of living for those less well-off is key to attaining lasting peace and to helping societies around the world deal with the massive changes in technological advances.

The landscape of technological innovation is going to continue to change rapidly in the future, Schacht said. "It's going to be like driving a race car faster and faster in an increasingly dense fog. The challenge to schools of engineering across the country is to produce a cadre of human beings who are technically literate."

Presenting the government's point of view was U.S. Congressman Vernon Ehlers, a member of the Committee on Science in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the few scientists in government. "People can't believe that nerds are in Congress," Ehlers quipped at one point. "I haven't stopped being a nerd. I still have a plastic pocket protector."

Educating the public and elected officials about science is crucial to innovation, noted Ehlers. "By its very bureaucratic structure, government tends to subdue innovation. It is not a system that likes to take risks," he said. "But I have always viewed my role in government as one to increase the risk."

Arguing that government funding for research is getting out of balance, he said he is working to double the National Science Foundation budget. Furthermore, he said, a "valley of death" exists between basic research and applied research, and government needs to build a bridge between the two.

Ehlers said he is committed to reducing scientific ignorance in the United States, which finished last worldwide in 12th-grade physics achievement. "I might be prejudiced, but I think that studying math, engineering and science produces better thinkers," he told his audience. Pointing to the lack of women and minorities in science and engineering, he said, "I refuse to believe that women and minorities can't learn math and engineering. I believe that it's a cultural belief that we have to stop perpetuating."

There is a need for good science curriculums and teachers that convey excitement and interest in science, said Ehlers, adding that nearly half of all high school physics teachers have never taken a college physics course. "We need better preparedness of science teachers and an earlier introduction of the main principles of science education," he argued. "Science involves a unique mode of inquiry and is not just a collection of observations, facts and theories. You learn to think in a different way and if you're not acquiring that process by elementary school, you're destined to fail."

This commitment to improving scientific education is also very important to Presidential Science Adviser John Marburger, who told the audience that a subcommittee has been formed to address key issues such as a drive to create more teachers.

Marburger also raised issues about homeland security and the war against terrorism. The technologies the United States depends upon for national security are coming from other nations, he said.

However, he does not advocate isolationism, he said, noting that while his office is in close contact with other offices of homeland security regarding restrictions on student visas, he thinks these efforts are misguided. "The war against terrorism does not mean that we cut ourselves off from other countries," he argued.

While Marburger touched on counter-terrorism, it was the main topic of the talk by William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering and the AT&T Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia.

Counter-terrorism is the highest priority right now in science and technology, said Wulf. He also echoed Schacht's point that the standard of living needs to be increased for those less well-off in order to maintain a peaceful society that fosters innovation: "Poverty breeds hopelessness, breeds despair and creates a climate for recruiting terrorists."

Wulf said he is amazed at the thousands of ways the United States is vulnerable to another terrorist attack. "We can't defend against all the possible vulnerabilities," he contended. "There is no silver bullet. Barricading airports is not going to keep us safe. Airplanes or airports will not likely be the next target."

In order to stop the breeding ground of terrorists, Wulf said, the industrialized world must take more responsibility for the quality of life in the rest of the world.

The forum concluded with an academic leaders panel consisting of deans and leaders from such schools as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Purdue and Rutgers universities, and the University of Southern California.

Fleury, who moderated the panel, said every one of the major universities represented is seeking ways to build an entrepreneurial environment for their students. They are also exploring ways to partner with industry.

"The future of innovation is going to depend on tomorrow's graduates and we have to keep the pipeline full and flowing," said Fleury.

-- By Karen Peart


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