What U.S. Needs to Be the Leader in STEM Again

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There’s nothing like being successful in the past to make you feel like a loser today. Take America—particularly America’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) sector. The big wins of the 20th century were pretty much all ours: First man on the moon? Check. Polio vaccine? Check. Hubble Space Telescope? Check. Creation of the Internet? Check. Towering research institutions like MIT, Caltech and Berkeley? Check, check and check.

But the U.S. is in no position to boast these days. Consider these numbers from this morning’s TIME Education Summit panel on Basic and Applied Research. Last year’s entire operating budget for the National Science Foundation was $7.4 billion—or only $400 million more than Americans spent on potato chips in the same period. Last year too, 20% of undergrads in China were studying in the STEM fields. In Europe it was 11%. In the U.S. it was 4.4%.

“In 2008, I was working on a paper about a newly discovered superconducting material,” said Robert Birgeneau, chancellor emeritus and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, “Wen I looked at my citations I realized that 80% of the papers I mentioned were from universities in China.”

There are a lot of reasons the U.S. is falling behind in the fundamental disciplines in which it once led. Money, of course, is a big part of it. “I was the head of the National Institutes of Health in the 1990s,” said Harold Varmus, currently the director of the National Cancer Institute. “Our funding doubled from 1998 to 2003. Now we’re facing nothing but stagnation and sequestration.”

Then too there’s the ferociously competitive, stultifyingly bureaucratic research culture. “We have built an unsustainable environment in which large numbers of faculty members train large numbers of students, hyper-populating their fields,” says Varmus. “I can fund perhaps 10% of the studies that apply for NCI grants.”

The problem is not that too many people are studying in the STEM fields. It’s that there simply isn’t enough basic infrastructure—including money—to let them go on to do the research they are training to do. In the biomedical field, said Robert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study, the average age at which a researcher receives a first grant is 42.

“It’s difficult and sometimes painful to be a member of the scientific community in the U.S.,” says Varmus. “Other countries offer a more comfortable environment.” The paradoxical result, he says, is that we do a better job of attracting students from overseas to come here and study than we do of holding onto our own students. And once undergrads from China or Europe get their still highly coveted degree from an American university, they take their newly acquired skills back home.

Certainly, there are still things we do very well. The U.S. is still—in a decidedly non-quantifiable way— the world’s leader in free thought. Dijkgraaf recalls coming to the U.S. as a young graduate student and being asked by a senior researcher, “What do you think I should be working on?” He’d never had an experience like that before.

The U.S. also remains the global leader in philanthropy. Non-profit foundations currently give about $1.5 billion per year to state and private research institutes and Robert Tjian, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, says that he and others in his community are working to double or even triple that within the next few years. And American diversity is increasingly being felt in higher institutes of research. Last year was the first year that more Asian, Latino, African-American and other minority group babies were born in the U.S. than white babies—and 18 years from now they will be the incoming class at colleges and universities around the country. At the University of California, Berkeley, the student body is now only 32% white and only 14% white male—a huge change from a not-so-distant era in which that one group was once pretty much all there was on the campus.

The U.S. can still fix what ails its basic and applied research community—and it can do it quickly. The science is very, very hard. Getting the chance to practice the science takes only money, forethought and will. Those qualities, we’ve proven in the past, we have in abundance.