U.S. at risk

After 50 years as the world leader in science and technology education and research, the United States could rapidly fall to the middle of the pack if Americans don’t start demanding — and investing in — more education and research.

That’s part of the message Norman Augustine, a retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation, will bring when he speaks at WSU Pullman at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, in Kimbrough Hall.

“The risk to America is, I think, enormous from two standpoints. One is terrorism and the other is economic competitiveness,” he said recently from his home in Potomac, Md. Augustine is a former chair of the National Academy of Engineering and recipient of the National Medal of Technology.

In 2005, he chaired a committee convened by the National Academies at the request of congressional leaders to consider what steps federal policy makers could take to “enhance the science and technology enterprise” so that the United States can compete and prosper in the 21st century.

“The bottom line is,” Augustine said, that the 20-member committee of CEOs, university presidents, pre-eminent researchers and industry leaders “came together unanimously to say that this is one of the most important problems facing America and it is time to wake up.”

The committee’s report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” presents a list of 20 recommendations grouped around four areas of emphasis: K-12 education, research, higher education and economic policy.

The top two recommendations, he said, are attracting more science and math majors into K-12 teaching, and doubling the amount of federally-funded research.
“The percentage of qualified (research) proposals being funded continues to decline,” he said, adding that applicants seem to spend more time writing proposals than doing research.

Further, he said, the political climate makes it difficult for bold research projects to get funding. “It’s very hard to get high-risk money,” he said. “Once consequence is that the government evaluators are very reluctant to take chances on new scientists.”

But, he said, that has to change.

“We’ve got to be willing to take chances,” he said. “If you seek to take huge leaps in science, there’s the ever present danger you’ll accomplish nothing.”
Augustine was in graduate school when Sputnik was launched and was starting his career when President Kennedy issued his challenge to NASA and America to put a man on the moon. Despite his front-row seat on some of the most exciting technological advances in history, Augustine said the challenges and opportunities today are unparalleled.

“It’s a fantastic time to be studying science or engineering,” he said.

Advocating more support of science and technology education and research to an audience at WSU is a little like preaching to the choir, but Augustine knows that.

“The primary message (to WSU) is that we’ve got to get out and convince the public there’s a problem,” he said. “The public is much less attuned to the fact that there’s a problem, in many ways, than the Washington (D.C.) leadership is now.”

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