Panel: U.S. Science Education Poses Security Risk

Published December 1, 2001

After examining possible U.S. responses to the prospective strategic environment of the next quarter century, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century earlier this year concluded “significant changes must be made in the structures and processes of the U.S. national security apparatus.”

Headed by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren B. Rudman, the advisory panel made recommendations for organizational change in five key areas, of which the top two were “ensuring the security of the American homeland” and “recapitalizing America’s strengths in science and education.”

On September 15, 1999, two years before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon-appointed panel had issued its first report on the emerging global security environment of the early 21st century and concluded the U.S. “will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack in our homeland” from foreign governments, terrorists, and other disaffected groups.

In a future which they believed could involve “the deliberate terrorizing of civilian populations” and “unannounced attacks on American cities,” the 14-member commission warned “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.”

“We should expect conflicts in which adversaries, because of cultural affinities different from our own, will resort to forms and levels of violence shocking to our sensibilities,” wrote the 14 commission members in their Phase I report, “New World Coming: American Security in the 21st Century.”

“We believe that the same ideas that are spreading free minds and free markets in the world today are the cause of much of the tumult we witness as well,” said Commissioners Hart and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a March 21, 2001 meeting of the House Armed Services Committee. “These ideas were revolutionary when they transformed European and American politics some two and a half centuries ago, and they remain so for much of the world today.”

In its most recent report, “Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change,” issued on February 15, 2001, the commission first recommends the formation of an independent National Homeland Security Agency with responsibility for planning, coordinating, and integrating various U.S. government agencies involved in homeland security. Following that, the commission makes a number of recommendations for rebuilding the country’s leadership in scientific research and K-12 education.

According to the commission, “the inadequacies of our systems of research and education pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any conventional national war that we might imagine.” Its report calls for substantial increases in funding for federal R&D to rebuild America’s technological leadership. Also recommended is a new National Security Science and Technology Education Act to fund a comprehensive program for producing the needed numbers of science and engineering professionals as well as qualified teachers in science and math.

The Problem

The increasingly technology-driven U.S. economy is projected to add some 20 million jobs during the next decade, many of which will require significant technical expertise. But evidence is mounting that the U.S. does not do a good job of math and science education, as demonstrated, for example, in the poor showing of U.S. high school students in the Third International Math and Science Study.

In seeking technically skilled employees, a dearth of domestic candidates has forced U.S. firms to resort to importing qualified candidates from abroad, using special H-1B visas. But, as the commission warns, “large numbers of specialized foreign technicians in critical positions in the U.S. economy could pose security risks.”

In 1997, the U.S. produced only 63,000 engineers, compared to China’s 148,000. In that same year, North America produced 23 percent of all science and engineering degrees granted worldwide, with Europe making up 34 percent and Asia making up 43 percent. More than half or more of the science and math doctorates at U.S. colleges are taken by foreigners, who then leave the country with their knowledge, according to the report.

To produce more scientists and engineers, the Glenn Commission last year estimated that more than 240,000 new and qualified science and math teachers are needed in K-12 classrooms over the next decade. (See “Literacy and Science,” School Reform News, December 2000.)

But qualified math and science teachers aren’t attracted to K-12 education: Some 34 percent of public school math teachers and nearly 40 percent of science teachers lack an academic major in their primary teaching fields.

Making Math and Science More Attractive

The commission recommends educational incentive programs for math and science studies, but it also recognizes the need to restore the professional status of educators and attract those with science and math backgrounds into teaching. It recommends efforts to:

  • Provide incentives such as loan forgiveness and scholarships to encourage students to pursue careers in science and technology, particularly as K-12 teachers;

  • Provide incentives for graduates and experienced professionals in math, science, and engineering to commit to teach in America’s public schools for three to five years;

  • Develop flexible alternative certification pathways to encourage experienced professionals in math, science, and engineering to make lateral transfers into teaching; and

Provide improved professional development opportunities for math and science teachers.

The commission recommends raising salaries to commercial levels for teachers, but particularly for science and math teachers so as to reduce the differential between public- and private-sector rewards. However, the commission states clearly it is not recommending that all teachers’ salaries should be raised to this level.

“Given the exigencies of the market, we see no reason why science and math teachers should not earn more than other teachers even in the same school system,” notes the report.

Noting that the infusion of additional resources has often produced disappointing results, the commission also calls for “new and creative approaches” to education, “including approaches that harness the power of competition.”