Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is our "Science Deficit" a function of our Education Deficit

Last night I saw a show on CNBC called Meeting of the Minds: The Business of Science, a panel discussion featuring such science luminaries as J. Craig Ventner (the DNA sequencing guy), Dr. Mae Jemison (a former astronaut), Dr. Michio Kaku (physics professor and author), Jim Simons (mathematician and investment firm leader) and Bill Joy (former chief scientist at Sun Microsystems and now partner in a greentech practice), and Bob Hugin (CEO of Celgene). The discussion and format of the show is pretty wide ranging.

But about 30-35 minutes in there was a discussion about science literacy and how political decisions affect and alter research and development. I thought it was fascinating how these scientists with undoubtedly great access to political and regulatory leaders complained of how little our political leaders knows. Dr. Kaku also complained of the growing loss of leadership in basic research areas occurring in the United States, losing the leadership in physics and genetics and other fields mainly to Europe.

Dr. Jemison noted that the science fields still tend to be dominated by whites and Asians and largely male in nature. She also (I believe it was her) briefly noted that science education is lacking which in turn leads to a lack of science illiteracy. The science illiteracy is compounded by the practical flood of information readily available, much of it highly technical, but difficult to understand without further explantaion.

The discussion on science literacy touched briefly on the subject of failure in the scientific process. Mr. Hugin noted that venture capital is reticent to get invovled in pure research, looking instead to a minor tweak that might lead to a marketing bonanza. Another of the panelists then noted that most of them got into science because it was fun and they liked it, but they learned that part of the scientific process of discovery was failure and then trying something different.

Something clicked at that moment that brought all of these little threads together. Venture capitalists refraining from backing pure research or long-range development, the lack of science literacy among our political leaders, and our lack of science/technology education of our children are all related, in my mind to something more fundamental--our desire to avoid seeing our children fail.

That's right, the coddling of kids and the helicopter parent phenomenon is destroying America's leadership in science and technology. It is a pretty brash statement, I know, but some of the faults that we have in our education system will do doubt lead to a more dire science illiteracy in the coming generation.

Science education is not just about learning the periodic table or the parts of a cell or the anatomy of a frog or the laws of thermodynamics or any of the hundreds and thousands of topics out there for exploration. Science education is partly that, but it is also about DOING. Science is hands on, it is experiments, it is dissection, it is mixing chemicals and Bunsen burners, its about getting dirty and yes, it is about failure. Failure is as much a part of the scientific process as making an observation. But failure can be heartbreaking if it is not taught as part of the process. Failure, however, is what pushes us beyond what we know, it drives us forward, making us, both the scientist and the society, better.

How much of that happens now? Does our schools' fears of liability prevent this hands on aspect of science? Do parental worries that little Jane or John is going to get hurt prevent kids getting their hands dirty? Do parental fears of their child failing contribute to a lesser emphasis on science education? Nobody wants to assuage broken hearts when an experiment fails and expectations are not met. So do parents avoid the problem by subconsciously steering kids in a way that won't challenge them or set them up for failure.

I believe all of these factors are contributing to the general problem of science illiteracy. Science is not cheap, it is not clean, it is not flashy, and it is often more about failures than it is about successes. Science sometimes has those occasional small steps forward and even more rarely giant leaps ahead. But mostly science is a grind, it is the little steps and the failures, that teach us things. But because science is often a large collection of failures that litter the pile of progress it is fraught with disappointment, with failure and that can be disheartening.

But we must teach our children that failure in science, failure in anything, is not a bad thing. It is a good thing if we learn something from our failure, even if it is just one small thing that we learn. Failure is part of the process of discovery. But if we as a society shield our kids from all failure, we shield then from the wonder that is science.

I am not a scientist, I am a lawyer. But I see my own daughters filled with excitement about science, and I want to encourage that. I don't want them to fail miserably--but they do need to fail occasionally in order to understand how to learn from failure. What better place to learn how to fail and how to learn from failure than in science.

No comments: