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How to win against China? Fund science education — not just research

How to win against China? Fund science education — not just research
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China is now rapidly surpassing us in science and technology. Increasingly, our government sees China as our main rival in the world and realizes that we need dedicate resources to fight it in cutting-edge technology or fall behind. As a result, Democrats and Republicans join together to invest money in critical cutting-edge technology to aid our nation’s future.  

In 1957, our nation also faced cutting-edge technology from a rival country: Sputnik — the result was the National Defense Education Act. Around a decade later, we had clearly caught up and decisively won this technological race, landing a man on the moon.  

Currently, in order to enhance our nation’s ability to compete against China, the U.S. Senate has rightly just passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, initially called the Endless Frontier Act, which seeks invest close to $250 billion in research in critical emerging fields such as robotics, semi-conductors and AI.  

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Yet, crucially, the federal government should also allocate funds to enhance science education. Among the world’s countries, the U.S. now ranks 33rd in students’ science proficiency, below the major cities of China, as well as Russia, Vietnam, Slovenia, Argentina and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development average. In 2002, the U.S. produced more students with college degrees in science and engineering than did China (around 550,000 versus around 400,000), yet by 2015, China produced over twice as many as the U.S. (approximately 1.7 million compared to approximately 800,000).  

Recently on June 4, a senior U.S. official stated that flying objects might not be UFOs, but rather advanced supersonic weapons that China and Russia appear to be developing. These countries will continue to compete strongly against us not only over the next few years, but undoubtedly over the rest of the century, if not longer, in ever-new areas. To succeed, we need to invest in not only the short, but also the long term, encouraging the next generation and producing more researchers, by bolstering science education.  

Biographies of great researchers reveal how their love of science starts early.  

Too often, science education involves just memorizing facts. But meaningful science education depends on observations of the world around us, and can uncover truths and become exciting and fun and exciting.  

Boredom about science is contagious. Poor teachers do little to inspire their students. But excitement about science is infectious, too. Studies show that when high school science teachers are able to engage in lab research over the summer, their students then perform better on state science exams.    

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The pace of scientific and technological evolution is rapidly escalating. Ten years ago, few people thought much about AI or even knew what it was. Today, it runs our lives. So, too, 10 years from now, cutting-edge technologies will again differ from those today. Other, newer areas of research will surely be shaping our lives, both aiding and potentially threatening us.   

Innovative researchers emerge from a supply chain that we must nurture and support. The Senate bill includes fellowships for graduate students, but these do not replace urgent needs to encourage more students to pursue science education far earlier in their education. Today’s junior and senior high school and college students, who might be excited by science, rather than bored by it, will be tomorrow’s researchers.  

Democrats and Republicans are now joining in a novel, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to advance science. They should continue to work together to help our nation in both the next few years and beyond that. Our nation’s long-term future is at stake.   

Dr. Robert Klitzman is a psychiatry professor, director of the online and in-person Masters of Bioethics Program and a co-founder and former co-director of the Center for Bioethics in the Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He is the author of nine books, including “Designing Babies: How Technology is Changing the Ways We Create Children” (2020), “The Ethics Police?  The Struggle to Make Human Research Safe” (2015) and “Am I My Genes?:  Confronting Fate and Family Secrets in the Age of Genetic Testing.”  Follow him on Twitter: @RobertKlitzman.

This piece has been updated.