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Education & Outreach

U.S. Science Gap on Global Stage

Sidebar: U.S. science stats Print Exclusive

When it comes to performance in math and science, the widening gap between American and international students is a growing concern, according to academics, politicians and business professionals. They say the trend is nothing new, but if it continues without educational reform, then the economic strength of the United States could be in jeopardy.

The gap does not pose a significant problem now, says Gerald McElvy, president of the ExxonMobil Foundation, but extrapolating the trend into the future, U.S. businesses could be in trouble. Baby boomers are retiring and among the subsequent generations of employees, fewer American students graduate with degrees in math or science. That trend, McElvy says, makes for a smaller pool of qualified employee candidates, as well as reduced innovation.

"Now is the time to really do something about the declining scientific and technological edge of Americans."
- Deborah Stine, National Academies
If the trend continues, “it is going to hurt a great deal in the future,” says Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. A large number of jobs are now outsourced because overseas employees cost less, El-Baz says. However, as those employees become exposed to the fact that the people doing similar work elsewhere are “paid this and that,” El-Baz says, they will begin to ask for higher salaries — which would be tolerated because of a shortage of qualified scientists and engineers in the United States.

Countries from Europe eastward are excelling in part because students there are exposed to science at a much younger age than in the United States, El-Baz says. Working in the earth sciences internationally — from teaching geology in Germany and in his native Egypt, to working as a science advisor to the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat — El-Baz says that he has noticed that the lack of early exposure to basic science leads American students to “fear science” and view it as “something tough that you learn about when you’re older, when you’re better.” In contrast, El-Baz says that some of his best students, who are from China, were exposed to science earlier. As a result, “they are not fearful of picking up a paper, reading it and applying it.”

El-Baz compared his experience presenting research at the Geological Society of America meeting in Salt Lake City with a similar presentation at the International Geological Conference meeting in Beijing. In China, he says, more high school students volunteered at the meeting, attended the lectures and approached him afterward with questions. “American students show a lack of interest because they are not familiar with the topics,” he says. “It becomes unfriendly and unapproachable.”

The perceived lag had Congress racing to find solutions in time for consideration within the U.S. 2006 fiscal year budget. Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) commissioned the National Academies to prioritize the top 10 actions that policy makers could take to improve America’s efforts in science and technology, to “compete, prosper, and be secure” in this century’s global economy, according to the Oct. 12 National Academies report.

“We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost — if indeed it can be regained at all,” the committee wrote in the Oct. 12 report.

Determining what puts a country in the lead, however, is not an exact science. One indicator of a nation’s scientific success that the committee considered for its report was the number of high-tech exports from a country, such as cell phones or computer software. Other indicators included the number of studies published in peer-reviewed journals, the number of science and engineering graduates, and student performance as indicated by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which collects data from 35 countries.

According to the last TIMSS assessment in 2003, U.S. eighth graders improved their performance in math and science compared to scores in 1995. During this same time, eighth graders also increased their science standings relative to other countries from 14th to eighth place. This may seem like good news, but those that ranked higher than the United States, such as Hong Kong and Korea, have improved their scores so dramatically that the gap is only widening, the TIMSS assessment noted.

To reverse the trend, the National Academies committee decided that the first priority should be to increase America’s “talent pool” by improving math and science education. “Now is the time to really do something about the declining scientific and technological edge of Americans,” says Deborah Stine, study director at the National Academies who organized the report’s committee, which was in part composed of active and retired business chief executives, university presidents and Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

The team’s report calls for increased scholarships, up to $20,000 per year, for annually recruiting 10,000 of the “brightest students” into the teaching profession, as well as providing up to $1 million grants to universities that promote science and engineering degrees in conjunction with teaching certification. The report also suggests a 10 percent annual increase in funding for basic research for the next seven years.
Americans need to invest more, specifically in education, if they ever hope to close the gap, says committee member Richard Zare, chemistry professor at Stanford University. “Some people in the business community turn up their noses at this and say, ‘there’s no short-term return for that,’ and you know, they’re right — there is no short-term payoff for education,” Zare says, “but there is a long-term payoff.”

Businesses have already started making the investment in education. The Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy, for example, is a five-day program designed to give third- through fifth-grade teachers the resources to motivate students to succeed in math and science (see Geotimes, June 2005). The responsibility to make sure the public is broadly educated in science, so that they can make knowledgeable decisions in a democratic society, McElvy says, should be shared among large corporations and national and state governments.

El-Baz says he is hopeful that the situation will turn around, especially now that Congress recognizes the threat posed by additional competition abroad as borders are “erased” by new technologies. Countries that are “very well versed in science and engineering are going to lead the way, and we don’t want to be in the bottom of the barrel,” El-Baz says.

Funding, however, remains a critical and uncertain component of science education as science funding is generally under fire and the nation’s deficit grows (see Geotimes Political Scene, December 2005). Which of the report’s recommendations will be allocated funds from the 2006 fiscal budget remains to be seen, and Zare is less hopeful for funding following last year’s costly hurricane season. “Some of this may have blown away,” Zare says. He says that he is pleased, however, that politicians from both parties recognize the problem and “want to actually try and do something.”

Kathryn Hansen

"Now We Must Conserve," Geotimes Political Scene, December 2005.
"Golfer Phil Mickelson on Science," Geotimes, June 2005.

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