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A Word from the Wise is Sufficient

Some of the country’s most promising young scientists, in Washington this week to be honored at the White House, offered some useful insights for policymakers about the nation’s science innovation ecosystem: 1) The United States has a lot going for it– fine universities and talented, curious and innovative people eager to bring about monumental transformations, 2) Government funding is critical– often the only source for basic research and 3) Scale back on item #2 and you compromise #1.

At a press roundtable today recipients of Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) were unanimous in saying a steady and consistent funding stream helps maintain the country’s brain power and world class R&D infrastructure. It also begins a process that can lead to successful commercialization of ideas and discoveries.

Michael Escuti, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University, affirmed that money he has received from the National Science Foundation has leveraged private capital and led to a small business startup. His has pioneered the development of liquid crystal “polarization gratings” which could have a wide array of applications from battlefield communications to advanced cameras.

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Are We a Nation of Homer Hickmans or Homer Simpsons?


On this day in 1957, the Soviet Union deployed Sputnik. The two-foot, 180-pound orb’s beeping was the starting gun of the space race and we in the U.S. seemed to be just putting our sneakers on. Despite President Eisenhower’s initial shrug, America freaked out – but in good way.

In under a year, a Democratic Congress and the Republican President created and made operational the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The National Defense Education Act, which not only jump started higher education in math and science here but also promoted the study of countries we realized were gaining on us, became law. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) came into being.  Later, of course, it became (Defense) DARPA, which yielded numerous technological advances, including what became the Internet.

When it came to being #1 in space, we didn’t wait for market forces to work their magic. In a speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962 President Kennedy said the tripling of the space budget in a little over two years was worth it. There were new jobs, new companies and new discoveries.  We were in the race but

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Time To Fix Higher Ed

Whenever there is a conversation in Washington about competitiveness you can almost guarantee that it will quickly default to “fixing K-12.” And usually along the way someone makes the statement, “We all know that K-12 is broken, but thank God the United States has the best higher education system in the world. But as I argued last year in a post “The Failure of American Higher Education,” we don’t. I argued that there was disturbing evidence that many colleges were failing to adequately educate their charges. I cited findings from national tests that showed that among recent graduates of four-year colleges, just 34, 38 and 40 percent were proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy, respectively.

Now a new book reinforces these findings. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Professors Richard Arum and Jospipa Roksa, argues that many students now get through college taking easy courses, doing little homework (50 percent less than students did in the 1960s), and failing to learn key skills. The book is based on a study by Arum that showed that in their first two years of college, 45 percent

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Shortage of Scientists

A question  regarding the shortage of scientists in the US.  NSF data shows (in constant 2010 dollars) that the median salary for S&E occupations was $72,432 in 1993 and $73,888 in 2008. if therewas a shortage, wouldn’t we expect salaries to go up as companies bid against each other for scarce S&E talent?   Life sciences, aerospace engineering and biomedical engineering were the only fields with significant increases, each going up between 10-12%. Other fields were largely flat.  I’ll post the data seperately.  

One explanation is that companies are substituting foreign for US scientists, another is that we’ve overstated the problem.  If companies can substitute foreign scientists, their performance won’t be affected (it may even be improved if the foreign scientists are cheaper).   There could however, be damage to  innovation in America (as opposed to innovation by American companies). 

Another question: if  we artificially increase the supply of American scientists, does that mean their salaries would fall?   If we increase the supply of scientists and didn’t also increase the supply of dollars to fund their resaerch, does that mean we have more scientists chasing the same research dollars and by implication,

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A New Approach for STEM Education

Most Americans appreciate the fact that the world is a very competitive place.  Policy makers and parents have long known that our kids, from grade school through college, need to step up their skills and understanding of science, technology, engineering and math – know in education circles as STEM studies – if they are going to compete successfully with their counterparts in China, India, Korea, and many European countries.  For this reason, for nearly 40 years there has been a lot of interest in improving STEM education.  While it is laudable that we are focusing on STEM education, we are running the risk of tethering ourselves to assumptions that might be a little faulty and outdated.  We can’t be truly innovative as a nation if we are not innovative in our thinking about STEM education.

The current assumption driving STEM education is that all students should get at least some STEM education at every step of their educational journey.  Supply students with high standards, great teachers and get as many kids excited about STEM as possible.  Call this the “some STEM for all” approach.  It sounds appealing, right?  Universal tech

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Getting Serious About Education: Why Can We Grade Students but Not Teachers?

Last week, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C. public schools, made national news by firing 241 — six percent — of the District’s teachers deemed underperformers. Rhee’s move came after negotiations in June with the Washington Teachers’ Union that created a merit-based bonus system that permits well-performing teachers to earn up to a 21 percent pay increase. The agreement also allows the District to fire those who did not meet minimum benchmarks. Teacher assessment scores will be based half on student improvement and half on in-class teacher evaluations.

While performance-related pay has been around since the 1700s and affects the pay scale of over 85 percent of private sector employees, the debate over merit pay for teachers is still highly contentious. On one hand, proponents argue merit pay will help cash-strapped schools retain good teachers and shed bad ones. They also argue that this will create a salary scale that is fairer than the system of seniority pay that currently exists in most school systems. On the other hand, opponents contend that merit pay may work for seamstresses, but teaching is too complicated to base quality on student performance on a

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Everything Should Not be on the Budget Cutting Table: The Case for Expanding Public Investment

The International Monetary Fund recently scolded the U.S. government for running large budget deficits. Leaving aside the absurdity of cutting deficits when unemployment is still extremely high, it’s clear that at some point – as joblessness declines toward 5 percent – deficit reduction will need to begin in earnest. But the real question is how to do that. There’s a risk that the Washington economic class – grounded as they are in 20th century neo-classical economics — will fail to balance the twin imperatives of fiscal discipline and public investment.

Indeed the common refrain that has become the new “group think” in DC is that “everything should be on the table” when it comes to addressing the debt. For example, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force says, “everything should be on the table.” Even President Obama, who has at least rhetorically talked about the need for increases in public investment and fought to include public investment in the stimulus, now says that everything should be on the table. Other groups echo this intellectually easy, but intellectually simplistic, position. Pete Peterson’s Concord Coalition likewise calls for “applying budget

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The Failure of American Higher Education

Attend any policy discussion in Washington that deals with education and the standard line you will hear is “the American K-12 system is a failure, but thank God we still have the world’s greatest higher ed system.” Let me suggest that this is fundamentally wrong. Higher ed is failing almost as much as K-12.

Let me offer two pieces of evidence of this. One is purely personal. As president of a DC-based think tank, I have over the years hired many recent college graduates and interviewed many more. Because the quality of so many of the graduates was so poor, ITIF has taken to giving the small share of the most promising applicants (based on their resumes and cover letters) a short test that we email them to complete at home in one hour. The questions are pretty simple: “Go to this person’s bio online and write a three or four -sentence version of their bio for us to include in a conference packet,” or, “Enter these eight items in a spreadsheet and tell us the average for the ones that end in an odd number.”

What is amazing, at

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