Has America really underinvested in science education?
July 26th, 2012
05:42 PM ET

Has America really underinvested in science education?

By Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Alex Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. Hank Campbell is founder of Science 2.0. They are authors of the forthcoming book Science Left Behind. The views expressed are their own.

On Global Public Square last month, Fareed Zakaria made the case that the U.S. economy is struggling in part due to poor investment in science. He based this conclusion on two claims: First, that federal research and development (R&D) investment has declined over the past several years and, second, that American students have fallen behind in science education.

The first claim, while true, only tells part of the story. As we discuss in the upcoming Science Left Behind, American R&D investment has been relatively consistent for the past 30 years, never dropping below 2.3 percent of GDP. Though the federal portion of U.S. R&D investment has fallen during this period, the private sector has actually picked up the slack. Indeed, the most recent estimate for 2012 shows that the U.S. will spend approximately 2.85 percent of its GDP on R&D.

How does this compare with other countries? Japan (3.48 percent), Germany (2.87 percent) and South Korea (3.45 percent) outspent the United States in R&D when it is measured as a percentage of GDP. But these numbers are misleading because they fail to recognize the proper context – that is, the sheer enormity of the U.S. economy. Though the U.S. “merely” spends 2.85 percent of its GDP on R&D, in absolute terms, that’s $436 billion – more than all of Europe combined. In fact, if all of the world’s R&D money was placed in a giant pot, nearly one out of every three dollars would come from the U.S.

Zakaria invokes international standardized test scores to support his second claim that young American students are falling behind. However, American students haven’t really fallen behind – they never did well on international standardized tests in the first place.

In 1964, U.S. students participated in the First International Math Study. How did they do? Not well. They placed 11th out of 12. In 2009, American students had math scores placing them 25th out of 34 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. This sent education lobbyists on a quest for more funding, even though the U.S. already spends $91,700 per pupil from kindergarten through 12th grade (behind only Switzerland, which still placed only 8th in math).

Despite poor performance on standardized test scores, the United States has led the world in Nobel Prizes and is widely recognized as the indisputable leader in higher education and scientific output. American education teaches kids how to think, not how to take standardized tests. And importantly, smart immigrants keep flocking to the United States, largely because of education.

Zakaria’s concern is understandable because everybody wants a more educated society, but there’s little evidence that creating more scientists will actually help get the economy back on track. Careers in academia are extremely difficult to find, as any post-doctoral researcher will testify. For instance, only 14 percent of biology PhD’s obtain an academic position within five years. For engineering, it’s 15 percent. Even in the field with the most success, the social sciences, less than half of PhD’s find an academic job within five years.

And the most depressing statistic: More than 5,000 janitors in the U.S. have PhD’s.

Much of the existing evidence instead indicates that America has too many highly educated people, and simply not enough jobs for them to fill. Because of this, The Economist recently concluded that earning a PhD may often be a waste of time.

Obviously the solution isn’t less education. But education itself is not a magic bullet, and we simply can’t turn every person into a scientist. Science is difficult and jobs are limited. Perhaps a better strategy would be to modify America’s immigration policy. We should continue to open our doors to foreign students who want to learn at the best schools in the world. But we should stop making student visas easy to get while making work visas after they are educated difficult to acquire. That legacy of protectionism results in the world’s best and brightest being forced to return home to compete against us.

Making America a more welcoming country for motivated immigrants is what made us great – and will continue to do so in the future.

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soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. neftrony

    check this link, showownstyle at my estore

    July 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      During the Cold War era, schools in all socialist countries invested heavily in maths and natural sciences. Students fell behind in philosopy, arts and literature. All these subjects were neglected, as they inspired people to think and question the regimes. In the West, it was the other way round. Today we still have a hard time to catch up in this curriculum.

      July 29, 2012 at 7:19 am | Reply
    • Really

      I'm confused. In one part the author says ...
      " Much of the existing evidence instead indicates that America has too many highly educated people, and simply not enough jobs for them to fill. Because of this, The Economist recently concluded that earning a PhD may often be a waste of time."
      ..and then says
      "We should continue to open our doors to foreign students who want to learn at the best schools in the world. But we should stop making student visas easy to get while making work visas after they are educated difficult to acquire."

      What this article is saying to me is that we don't have enough jobs for the educated Americans and the answer is to bring in foreigners to compete for those few jobs available? HUH?

      How about we focus on innovation, creating jobs and bringing jobs back to this country....

      August 7, 2012 at 8:55 am | Reply
  2. jaimemorrissey

    I too was very skeptical before entering into an online program from a High Speed Universities but have been very surprised at how much I have learned. They offers a wide variety of learning resources and very comprehensive study guides in all of their courses.

    July 27, 2012 at 2:37 am | Reply
  3. A STEM advocate

    Susan Hockfield, former president of MIT, said that economists have found that 50% of jobs come from innovation. Improving the economy sounds like a good reason to me.

    July 27, 2012 at 9:50 am | Reply
  4. Matthew Kilburn

    "Obviously the solution isn’t less education."

    Actually, it might be. At least less of the education people are currently receiving. For all the people we send to college in this country, half of them drop out...and many of those who don't end up with degrees that do absolutely nothing to improve their lifetime earnings potential. Clearly, there is a limit to the effectiveness of sending people to receive post-secondary education.

    July 27, 2012 at 10:21 am | Reply
    • MarkR307

      So, if they drop out, why is that a problem? They tried it and didn't like it, or for whatever reason decided it wasn't for them. The more people try it, the more people are likely to complete it. Those who didn't complete it, still learned something, and have proof of it to their future employers. I see no problem with drop-outs, and wouldn't want to reduce the drop-out rate by having fewer people enter.

      July 28, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply
      • nina

        and who is to say that those who did not make it the first time do not go back and try it again successfully, be it the next year or 10 to 40 years afterwards. Education is for a lifetime. In education, one thing leads to another. It is a wonderful feeling.

        July 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  5. BK

    Wow saeed your right.....In fact China has done so well and beaten the US so badly that they still don't trust there currency to float on it own against the dollar and the thought of an uncensored internet connection in every chinese home is terrifiying to the politburo.

    July 27, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
  6. No We Are NOT.

    No we are not. We are just OVERINVESTED in useless, overpaid, dumba$$, executives that like to offshore jobs!!!!!!!

    July 27, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
    • gary

      Yes,we are indeed OVERINVESTED in useless,overpaid,dumba$$ executives that like to offshore jobs....The top Executive in the USA President Obama passed a stimulus bill that sent thousands of jobs overseas on purpose....


      July 27, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
      • Mitt Robme

        I made millions offshoring jobs!!! And then I evade taxes by off shoring the profits!!!! The GOP way!!!!!!!!

        July 27, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  7. saeedTheTowelHead

    Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaddy?

    July 27, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  8. Yenmor

    Science builds on past discoveries and thus public domain R&D has a far broader societal impact than Private R&D ( which largely remains private and proprietary). Private R&D can help individual companies make money but public R&D can be used by everybody to make money, and does indeed function as the key preliminary data for most successful Private R&D efforts. It is the lifeblood of entrepeneurs. Implying that private corporate investment in R&D can make up for falling societal commitment to research is silly.

    July 27, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Reply
    • Martin

      My thoughts exactly. It is scientific knowledge in the public domain that has real lasting value. I would go further and say that if we really want to make progress we have to move away from a model of proprietary information (to maximize shareholder profit) and move toward investing in scientific research for the broader commonwealth.

      August 19, 2012 at 11:49 am | Reply
  9. ttaerum

    It's unfortunate that the myth that "only money invested in colleges and schools results in scientific achievement" is being perpetuated by colleges and schools. If that was the case, we would have lost long ago to Russia and Germany. The fact is we've succeeded in the past because we've imported the best and the brightest (e.g. Einstein) and they've worked with the best and the brightest in America. What is most important in science is the people – who are willing to dedicate heart and soul (and self deprivation) in order to advance what is known about the natural universe. What distinguished America from Europe (and Africa and Asia and Russia) in the past was lack of corruption. Unfortunately, we're entering into a period where we have a new class of intellectual (and economic) elitism and union patronism.

    July 27, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Reply
  10. Leftcoastrocky

    "And the most depressing statistic: More than 5,000 janitors in the U.S. have PhD’s."

    PhD's in STEM areas? I doubt it. In the liberal arts probably.

    July 27, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Reply
  11. Leftcoastrocky

    PhD's in STEM can be used in the private sector, to develop new products and processes and thereby create new industries and jobs.

    July 27, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Reply
  12. Leftcoastrocky

    And how do the authors propose that we create the new industries to create the new jobs?

    July 27, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Reply
    • Semantics101

      Gain the interest of foreign investment. The U.S. has declined in manufacturing exports because it is less costly to set up in a forein market than to employ a large labor force, ship the cargo with raising price in logistics then having to pay a import tax.
      The idea can work both ways and the U.S. has a slight advantage with a diverse manufacturing sector; suppliers and buyers. If foreign capitolist wan't to expand profits within our boarders then America has to sell the idea and stop complaining about globilization.

      On a second note, your lack of understanding sciences is to my benifit because it gives me more oppurtunity being a tech head.

      August 3, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  13. Leftcoastrocky

    The need is for more engineers more than for more scientists.

    July 27, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  14. Leftcoastrocky

    Scientists can be employed teaching grades 9-12.

    July 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Reply
    • Semantics101

      A lot of proffesors are retired engineers. It's just to graduate with an engineering degree takes alot more time because there's more ciriculum; general studies, higher mathmatics and the vocational oriented courses.

      August 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  15. John L

    I am quite sure, that not many people from europe emmigrate, because of the "better science" in America, its just that most offers people get from america pay much better than an mediocre position here.

    Secondly, the conclusion doesnt make sense, by stating, hat there are too many scientists, the logical consequence would be, to decrease the number of foreign scientists...

    July 28, 2012 at 3:18 am | Reply
  16. deniz boro

    I used to work for AMC back in 1986. I was a merchandiser for 950 USD/mounth which was a hell of a money in Turkey than. I once asked for my "JOB DISCRIPTION". One item was math ability. I asked what it ment. The answer was that I should be able to add, subtract, multiply...and dividing was a plus.

    July 28, 2012 at 9:44 am | Reply
  17. RetAP

    I take issue with this sentence: "American education teaches kids how to think, not how to take standardized tests." Ask any k-12 educator and you will find out that since No Child Left Behind, the emphasis has been on standardized tests as the main indicator of student achievement. This is especially true in economically deprived areas where the battle to achieve proficiency in basic skills is a top priority. High stakes testing uses standardized testing because these tests are cheap to administer and score. Current economic situations in many states leave little room for anything else.

    July 28, 2012 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • Michael

      And that's exactly how it should be: "in economically deprived areas" the emphasis should be on the basics, not on "creativity". You can not be creative if you can not read or multiply. Conversely, once you reach a certain level of basic proficiency, standardized tests may indeed become limiting. But, as is hinted at above, they are not really emphasized in decent schools. What is needed is differentiated treatment, in terms of funding, of STEM degrees compared to liberal arts. Stop churning out third-rate "communication" majors (luckily, there is no such thing as a third-rate engineering major: the prerequisites are too stringent.)

      July 28, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
      • nina

        So barbaric to punish children because they live "in economically deprived areas". You want these children to become the future janitors of the world because they live "in economically deprived areas". You have no idea the wonderful possibilities in each and every child regardless of their station in life. The only thing third rate is your mode of thought.

        July 28, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
      • deep blue

        A true understanding of mathematics is not basic. Do you teach students how to multiply, or what multiplication is? I have met college students that no longer remember how to multiply fractions. Why? Because they did not understand multiplication. They were taught mathematics as a series of procedures to memorize, not as an abstract system to model our world. Because of this, they struggle to learn new mathematical concepts, can never hope to derive any concepts they are not taught, and forget everything they learn if they do not repeatedly drill it.

        July 28, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Kim

      As a former teacher, I agree. I taught science at both the high school level and college level. In high school, we ARE teaching students to take standardized tests. During my first year teaching, when I told a veteran teacher I wanted to incorporate a biotech segment into the curriculum, she told me not to bother. Just teach what they will see on the standardized test because there is just too much to cover in a short time. And all the tests should be multiple choice, because that's the format of a standardized test.

      Even at the college level, students complain when they don't get multiple choice tests. We have created a generation of students that only know how to take multiple choice tests!

      August 6, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  18. AMC-800 Fully Automatic A/C Service Station

    Hello, Neat post. There's an issue along with your site in internet explorer, would check this? IE nonetheless is the market chief and a huge part of other folks will omit your fantastic writing because of this problem.

    July 29, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  19. MDAT

    What a stupid comment.You are just a terrorist.

    July 29, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  20. andres

    I think that the companies in the US are tired of paying the high wages that engineers used to command. Every time you hear a CEO of a technology company complain that there are not enough engineers and that we ought to train more of them, a little research shows that they are also laying off the older and higher priced engineers. I absolutely believe that they want to steer more students to STEM degrees so that the price of engineers will fall, not that they are really concerned about having enough engineers to do the work.

    If you don't believe me, the next time an industry leader calls out for more STEM students, take a look at how many engineers they have laid off recently. That alone should speak volumes.

    July 29, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  21. Jack

    I disagree with your assertion that only 15% of engineering PhDs find a job in academia within 5 years is cause for concern. From my experience, engineers are more drawn to the private sector or government research labs rather than academia. A better statistic would be the percent of engineers employed within their field, which is overwhelmingly higher. A larger problem with this assertion is the underlying implication that a positive economic impact can only be made in academia. In the case of engineering, this is generally untrue.

    July 30, 2012 at 7:50 am | Reply
  22. rebiii

    Government priorities in funding science are the same as they are for the national budget. In particular the government is interested in supporting espionage, the military, and the economy.

    Funding of knowledge for knowledge's sake is very low.

    What the government does is fund birders to spy in Latin America or graduate students to spy on each other, research scientists that have anything to do with weapons development, and research into anything that could help or harm the economy, such as control of noxious insects, etc. That's pretty much it, except for token amounts here and there which mean little, in the same way that the candy which the military hands out to children in foreign countries has little to do with the military's mission.

    To disbelieve this scenario, you have to believe that the government has one set of priorities for the F.B.I., N.S.A., C.I.A., etc., where every email and phone call made in America passes through a fusion center, etc. (no need to elaborate too much–we all know the story) and an entirely different set priorities for the billions of dollars that they hand out in scientific grants, where national security is not even considered.

    Yeah, right.

    If you are willing to do dirty tricks for them, you get grant money. If not, you have a marginal career. If you don't understand this scenario, then you are some combination of naive, inexperienced (never worked in the sciences at the graduate level or above), or not particularly discerning.

    That's not the world as we would like it to be, folks, but it's the world as it is.

    August 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  23. H. E.

    "Though the federal portion of U.S. R&D investment has fallen during this period, the private sector has actually picked up the slack." The private sector rarely invests in fundamental research that will be of benefit in the long term. In general, it will invest only in applied research that will lead to immediately marketable products.

    "Despite poor performance on standardized test scores, the United States has led the world in Nobel Prizes and is widely recognized as the indisputable leader in higher education and scientific output. American education teaches kids how to think, not how to take standardized tests. And importantly, smart immigrants keep flocking to the United States, largely because of education." There is a disconnect between K-12 education and higher education. No one immigrates to the United States for the quality of K-12 education, which is abysmal compared to systems in peer countries. American universities remain at or near the pinnacle of higher education worldwide. They do so largely through federal research support.

    August 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  24. dakota2000

    Oh, and you know what- other countries are criticized for just "memorizing stuff" yet, having facts at your finger tips can really accelerate the who research process. So, face it, we are just a bunch of whiny losers.

    August 10, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply
  25. alice

    How to solve the problem?

    Make college education and university free Students should only worry about paying their house and food. How to pay this? Oh well maybe not buy 2 stealthbombers. Fix teachers salaries and nationalise the whole system. Does it sound like communism? Yeah it does. does it work? yep it does.

    But well this will never come anyway because of all the teaparty fools who believe a 20 year old should start their life with 100k in debt. I never was a fan of conspiracy theories but HELL how cant you guys see whats going on here?

    Anyway, im not living in america. So i doesnt concern me.

    August 20, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Reply

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