When you wonder why the United States is so far behind other first-world countries in mathematics and science, look no further than the ways we teach those fields.
In order to regain our competitive edge in STEM fields, the scientific community needs fewer bureaucratic barriers and faulty measures of productivity. Instead, it needs a greater focus on teaching to make science exciting.
Michael Snow, a professor of physics at IU, used to work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a research laboratory part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Snow chose to work at IU because he said he wanted to teach students, which he couldn’t do at NIST.
He also said government policy often worked its way into research at NIST.
Snow’s experience shows not only the importance of education in science, but also how government policy can influence research.
Sometimes the influence can be dangerous.
In February, the House of Representatives approved the Scientific Research in the National Interest Act, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.
The bill requires the National Science Foundation to fund research in national interest, which, as House Democrats have argued, limits scientific freedom for the sake of ignorant political interests.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, criticized the bill in an interview with the Chronicle.
“This is an arrogant bill that says ‘We know best,’” he said.
The NSF stands by President Obama’s threatening to veto the bill if it passes the Senate.
The work of right-wing politicians, or even government policy in general, isn’t the only barrier to scientific research, though.
The scientific community’s overemphasis of effect at the expense of creativity and innovation, the true predictors of scientific productivity, has hindered research progress as well.
As British zoologist Tim Birkhead lamented the United Kingdom’s scarcity of Nobel Prize winners in the past few decades, he said the country’s leaders should “be ashamed, too, of the utter stupidity of asking for impact statements for research yet to be carried out.”
“Research is investigating the unknown; we cannot predict what we will find,” wrote Peter Lawrence, a biologist at the University of Cambridge.
Since science is so unpredictable, it doesn’t make sense to measure the most valuable research through the ambiguous notion of effect.
We can address these issues through better teaching.
Peter Murphy, professor of creative arts and social aesthetics at James Cook University, said American academics teach eleven hours, research 2-5 hours and spend the rest of their time on professional obligations and administrative duties every week.
More time and effort in teaching can empower students and increase the nation’s STEM interest.
Teaching science as a way to learn as much about the world as possible while promoting an interest in science for its own sake will improve research quality and productivity.
Only then will we dominate the world in science and mathematics while creating the healthiest society we can.
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