Opinion: America's Young Scientists at Risk

Publication: The Sacramento Bee

Author: Carol W. Greider


12/06/2010 - The Dec. 10 awards ceremony in Stockholm celebrates the 2010 Nobel Prize winners and the ability of curiosity-driven men and women to open doors on previously undiscovered areas of knowledge. But it comes on the heels of a disturbing recent report from the National Academies of Sciences warning that the United States is continuing to slide toward relinquishing its position as the world's top innovator.


That accolade instead seems to be shifting to other nations, particularly in Asia, that are making the necessary investments in science and engineering education and research that drive so much of the world's economy.


"Rising Above The Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5" provides a troubling sequel to an influential 2005 study, which called for action and investment in 20 specific areas of science, math and engineering education, research and science and technology policy. But as the hurricane metaphor in the report's title broadcasts, our nation is more at risk than ever: "It would appear that overall the United States' long-term competitiveness outlook (read jobs) has further deteriorated," according to the blue-ribbon panel that prepared the new analysis.


Scientific- and engineering-based enterprise leads to the sorts of technologies, products, services and jobs that give life and momentum to a nation's economy. Not only do the scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs benefit, the new report states, but so do the truck drivers who deliver new products, the sales teams that market them, the repair personnel who maintain them and so forth, through the entire economy.


These challenging budgetary times, however, require innovation in how we support our country's young scientists and engineers at points in their professional lives when they often are the most creative. We need new approaches not just from government but also by the private sector and philanthropic community.


I was fortunate to have shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2009, with two colleagues, for fundamental discoveries about the structure and behavior of chromosomes. As a young scientist 20 years ago, however, I couldn't have imagined that our work would later bear so directly on cancer and age-related disease. But fortunately I received support to pursue the biological and clinical connections of this basic research.


Early in my scientific career, I was the beneficiary of a four-year award in biomedical sciences from a program run by The Pew Charitable Trusts that has supported over 500 early-career scientists in its 25-year history. The funds helped me pursue my research, of course, but more important in the long run was the confidence the award gave me to ask bold questions. Subsequent support for over 20 years from the National Institutes of Health allowed me to continue pursuing connections of basic science to disease.


Too many creative young scientists today, however, fail to receive such funding when it can serve them-and their country-the most. Over the past quarter-century, the average age at which investigators receive their first independent National Institutes of Health research grant has increased from 34 to 42 years. Meanwhile, the proportion of grant proposals that succeed has decreased so dramatically that we have arrived at a real crisis point. We are in danger of losing a generation of creative young minds due to lack of funding.


It takes a forward-looking country to open educational and career pathways to train young scientists, but there is also a strong pragmatic argument for doing so. "While only four percent of the nation's work force is composed of scientists and engineers, this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent," the NAS report notes.


As other countries invest heavily in science and education, they are beginning to challenge our longstanding preeminence in the scientific and technological enterprises. Five years ago, the NAS warned of emerging global competition. Today, the risk of losing our leadership position is even greater. In this increasingly competitive world, we need to renew and intensify our national commitment to science and engineering, with a focus on education and research.


Maintaining and improving our scientific standing requires all stakeholders to strengthen those existing programs that nurture our scientific and engineering workforce, while inventing and funding new ones. Only this will allow the United States to preserve its well-deserved reputation as an economic engine where innovation can flourish.

Read the letter America's Young Scientists at Risk on the Sacramento Bee's Web site.


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