With the 2004 presidential election reaching its crescendo, neither candidate has yet to articulate a national initiative that leverages science and technology; even though the key to tomorrow's future is front and center ... homeland security.
U.S. presidents have relied on cutting-edge innovation to provide the American people with a vision and national initiative that offered future hope and promise.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy launched the "Space Race" to prove our scientific superiority and flex our military muscle to deter a dangerous communist menace. In 1983, Ronald Reagan announced his intentions to develop a new system--the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars"--to reduce the threat of nuclear attack and end the strategy of mutual deterrence.
Both of these visionaries and their forward-thinking initiatives captured the American imagination and were buoyed by strong political support, even though there were some critics. And, these presidents relied heavily on our strength as a pioneer in advancing science and technology, which spawned and sustained our successful industrial base. As a result, the United States has emerged as the unquestionable leader of the free world and has given us all the quality of life we enjoy today.
Of course, there are myriad important issues, from Iraq to health care. But, failing to nurture the potential of science and technology has a huge economic consequence downstream, and will limit our growth as the leader in world-changing discovery and innovation.
Indeed, science and technology have proven time and again to offer enormous short- and long-term strategic value. And the noncritical role of these fields in the presidential election is nothing short of alarming.
While research and development budgets have not been reduced under the current administration, President Bush has also not capitalized on the need to promote a national mandate on the research and development of security technologies. Senator Kerry, too, takes a similar--more populist--approach, offering a little something for everyone, but he fails to articulate concrete proposals with visionary objectives.
Even the 9/11 Commission, which revealed some information about process and communication gaps prior to the terrorist attacks, failed to address the technology gap that may have limited our ability to prevent the devastating loss of life and property.
To put this in perspective, consider that the 1961 "Space Race" triggered economic and social ripples that are still felt today. Although it was designed to put an American on the moon, this project produced many common commercial products that have made life more convenient, comfortable, and safe--such as cordless power tools, scratch-resistant lenses, athletic shoes, and MRI and laser technologies, among others--as well as advances in aerospace.
Likewise, the "Star Wars" initiative from 1983 inspired technology that helps fight cancer, enables the use of cellular phones, and helps pilots avoid rough patches of air, among other things. It also spawned new developments in computing and communications technologies.
As America enters the 21st century, it is experiencing unparalleled global economic competition and new enemies that transcend boundaries of any kind. Accordingly, we must focus on enhancing security technologies in their broadest capabilities, and encourage groundbreaking discoveries that will simultaneously spark our economy and protect us from danger.
So where do we begin? This national initiative must start in the White House and be met in the classroom.
The true potential of the American educational system has yet to be realized. Many of our most talented teachers are on the verge of retirement, and we simply don't have skilled individuals to effectively replace them. In-service teacher training is a successful strategy that will help keep teachers, and ultimately their students, prepared and focused on learning about the issues that matter most. Research reinforces the view that it is not the amount of time spent in the classroom that achieves optimal results, but the degree of preparedness of the teachers in their subject matter and their freedom to teach as opposed to administrate. We've simply not tackled this important issue effectively.
Specifically, we have to engender confidence and enthusiasm for math and science ... not fear or intimidation. We must use technology to show students that these fields aren't only interesting, but fun. The internet is a fantastic tool, and putting learning examples on the internet with live data--such as the location of every ship in the world or the activity of a volcano--is much more exciting than rote book learning.
Attractive doctoral fellowships to encourage U.S. citizens to pursue graduate degrees in engineering and science must also be a priority. These stipends should not be taxable; the loss of revenue on a national scale will be insignificant compared to the gain of future generations of scientists and engineers. If we do not act decisively, many of the foreign-born graduate students could return to their countries and take their knowledge with them.
To remedy this concern, the status of the Ph.D. must be elevated. Whether it's offering tax-free incentives or encouraging Congress to increase the number of fellowship opportunities, a national need must be created and its significance recognized worldwide. Make no mistake, private monies will follow. The nation must make every effort to enhance the prestige of U.S. citizens obtaining Ph.D.s in engineering and science.
Already, China, India and Korea, and earlier Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, for example, have made these types of investments. It is no coincidence that patents are pouring out of some of these countries. We must make a similar commitment before it's too late. And this can only start at the top with the President.
More public investment is also needed for basic academic research because corporate funding continues to decline, leaving a big gap for the scientific discoveries that lead to new products and services in the future.
Increased funding will help detect conditions such as cancer and heart disease earlier, as well as foster innovative drug discovery and drug delivery. Additionally, research and development funding for aging urban infrastructure will better protect our important landmarks and our citizens. Our water supplies, transportation systems, tunnels, and bridges remain vulnerable targets. We can't forget that our cities are still in the crosshairs of determined terrorists, and we must take steps to safeguard them.
Lastly, the United States continues to lack a consistent policy for developing alternative and renewable fuels, technology for the compliance of trucks and buses with the Clean Air Act, and for reducing our reliance on petroleum. The candidates have outlined their energy policies, but each still lacks a long-term agenda with a dedicated national commitment.
Perhaps at no other time in our nation's history--with no foreseeable end to the war on terror and legitimate concerns about security--is it more important to again leverage our unrivaled resources and reinvest significantly in science and technology. Perhaps at no other time in our history have we needed a leader like Kennedy or Reagan to present a vision of the future that offers hope and promise.
Remarkably, that vision is right there in front of this year's candidates. Let's hope that the winner sees it.
Harold Raveche is president of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.