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Sunday, March 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Science literacy: The Chinese get it

Special to The Times

A lot has been said lately about the danger of America losing its preeminence in science and technology while nations like China and India threaten to surpass us. You see some pretty alarming statistics: The U.S. now imports more high-tech products than it exports. The number of American 18- to 24-year-olds with science degrees has fallen to 17th in the world, plummeting from third three decades ago. Only three American companies ranked among the top 10 recipients of patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2003.

My own experiences in China have convinced me how serious that nation is about staking its future on technological superiority. When I visited China eight years ago, it was a Third World nation. But when I returned late last fall, things had changed dramatically. I saw many new, well-equipped laboratories, often staffed by brilliant Chinese nationals who were trained in the U.S. or Europe and then recruited back to China. One highly touted research park near Beijing boasts 22 colleges and universities next door to Chinese branches of Fortune 500 companies.

China is like a highly motivated startup company. They're building the infrastructure to do it all — research, engineering and product development — and they're doing it fast. It's very exciting to see their entrepreneurial spirit.

We can't lower our wages to compete with those of China and other developing countries. Nor can we, or should we, shut off the worldwide innovation pipeline; we need everyone's brainpower. So how can we compete?

Everyone from Bill Gates to President Bush has advocated awarding more science and engineering degrees, more training of high-tech workers and additional research investments. These are all worthy goals, but they're the tip of the iceberg. If we want to steer the Titanic of American competitiveness out of danger, we also need to address the deeper, less-obvious issues underneath, and we all have a part to play.

In our quest to educate the next generation of scientists, we've become complacent about science literacy for all of us. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans consider themselves well-informed about science issues, according to the National Science Board. Yet, all of us are increasingly faced with decisions that require scientific ways of thinking, including choices about our health and managing shared resources like rivers and public lands.

U.S. businesses also are demanding more technologically prepared workers as global competition accelerates. Nationwide, the number of jobs requiring technical training is growing at five times the rate of other occupations. Workers who are not adequately prepared to compete are in danger of seeing their jobs shifted to countries whose citizens are stronger in scientific literacy. By 2010, some U.S. companies estimate that as much as 90 percent of their research, development and manufacturing will be done in China and India.

Despite these harsh realities, a majority of American parents are satisfied with the amount of science and math being taught in their children's schools, according to a recent survey by Public Agenda. This rosy view of reality is at odds with other findings consistently showing that our students rank low in those subjects compared with other developed countries, and many are unprepared for the worlds of work and college.

It wasn't always this way. In the 1950s, most people had blind faith in the ability of the U.S. to lead the world in science. My father, with only an eighth-grade education, saw what science could do during World War II. The launching of the Soviet Sputnik satellite in 1957 galvanized our nation's science focus, setting the stage for much of the prosperity we enjoy today. That generation felt that if we could put a man on the moon, we could do anything in science. But the upheaval and skepticism of the 1960s and 1970s tarnished the image of science, while the Cold War thaw and the breakup of the Soviet Union lulled us into complacency. Gradually, other countries began catching up as we began to slide.

I'm not asking parents to become experts in science, but rather to keep informing themselves and to hold their children and schools accountable. Science, math and technology should be integrated into other subjects from kindergarten through college, as they are in life. Social-studies teachers should talk about why climate change is so complex and how it affects society. History teachers should talk about how science has benefited and failed us. Political science and economics teachers should talk about how science policy is made.

We also need rigorous science courses for all students, not just those planning careers in science or engineering. Our schools should teach subject matter in depth while giving students opportunities to apply knowledge in a variety of settings in and outside the classroom.

U.S. companies view China's 1.3 billion people as a marketing bonanza, but our country can benefit from China's innovation as well. If there's anything that will push the U.S. and China together, it's the shared need for clean, renewable energy — and the Northwest has a corner on this market.

Beijing adds 30,000 new cars to its roads each month. In 2003, China became the second-largest importer of oil in the world, after the U.S. But, as I saw firsthand in China, fossil-fuel emissions have created air pollution that ranks among the worst in the world. And the growing energy appetite of the U.S. and China continues to drive up the price of oil, while forcing increased dependence on countries with unstable regimes.

This impending energy and national-security crisis creates a perfect opportunity for Northwest research institutions to work with China right now on alternative energy sources. And more resources may be at hand. President Bush's new Advanced Energy Initiative, his proposed 2007 budget and current Senate bills all call for more research funding for clean, renewable energy.

Washington state's proximity to the Pacific Rim gives us an advantage not just as a trading partner, but as a technology collaborator. Two hundred software developers work in Microsoft's Beijing office, which Bill Gates has called the company's most productive in terms of ideas generated. Researchers from the University of Washington and Washington State University team with their peers from China on projects including pharmaceutical development, industrial-pollution reduction and agriculture. Our own laboratory is exploring collaborations with Chinese research institutes on renewable energy. With a more deliberate, sustained emphasis on partnerships, our state could lead the country in collaborations with Asian countries.

The public sector can incentivize collaborations, especially among government and industry researchers. I'd like to see the federal government make available more of its research and technology budget to industry sectors in which it believes the U.S. can be most competitive, without favoring any individual company. Federal support would also pave the way for exchange programs, where government and industry scientists work in each other's labs, blending their talents and perspectives to achieve a common goal.

My industry peers on the state's Washington Roundtable view technology as a business necessity. These CEOs need software for their business transactions, statisticians for financial projections and engineers to keep power grids running properly. They also value the funding and jobs that research institutions bring to the state.

Much as I appreciate this advocacy, I want to expand the thinking beyond technology products, services, degrees and jobs. We all need to understand and value what a robust science foundation means for the state.

Our state has taken some innovative actions to retain its science competitiveness, like establishing the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, a public/private partnership for preventive and predictive medicine and agricultural advancements. Another example of a smart investment is the cost-shared Bioproducts, Science, and Engineering Laboratory, which will break ground on WSU's Tri-Cities campus next month. In this research and teaching facility supported by the state, WSU and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers will develop ways to convert agricultural byproducts into commercially valuable products like plastics and solvents.

Scientific advancements in our state are opening doors to biofuels, cleaner water and air, more secure borders and even reduced health-care costs. With Washington's innovative work force and top-notch research and academic institutions, we can create real breakthroughs to address these challenges.

We don't live in China's top-down society, where leaders mandate a scientifically literate and trained citizenry and everyone falls into line to achieve it. American leaders are sounding the alarm, but not much can happen without a groundswell of support from citizens. Each of us has the responsibility to take a personal interest, as well as to drive parents, teachers, community leaders, elected officials and, ultimately, policymakers, to change things.

The U.S. science push in the Sputnik era was driven by fear of military superiority by an enemy. Now, we're faced with a different but no-less-compelling threat: the possibility of economic decline for our children and grandchildren. We must rebuild the momentum we once had if we hope to maintain the quality of life that we take for granted.

Dr. Len Peters is director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and senior vice president of Battelle, which operates PNNL for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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