Math and science add up to our future; Tennessee senator doesn't want to see America fail

Posted on December 15, 2005

I don't know about you, but I sometimes grow weary hearing big-picture thinkers tell us we need more mathematicians and scientists. Maybe it was because I wasn't very interested in those subjects as a kid. Whatever, all the talk about math and science can leave my politics-and-history mind blank. Several students in Allen said the same thing the other day. When I asked a classroom of high schoolers how many wanted to study math and science in college, one student shot up his hand and said we shouldn't forget the "bohemian" side of the brain, meaning the side that worries about things like war and peace. A number of his fellow students nodded. I like their independence, but here's the plain truth that people like me need to remember: We either champion math and science, or we lose our footing in the world. That's hard to imagine since we're the Big Cat economically, militarily and politically. But if our schools downplay math and science, Americans will become the 7-foot basketball player who stumbled over his own clumsy feet running down the court. While we're trying to get back up, little fast guys will run right by. Lamar Alexander sounds like a prophet when you get him talking about this challenge. You might expect that from a former secretary of education and ex-university president. Now a Republican senator from Tennessee, he worries about India and China producing more engineers than the U.S. It bothers him that we lose top students from other countries after they attend our colleges. And he's concerned that our job base will rot without enough of the science and technology students who've propelled our economy since the 1960s. Mr. Alexander is using his Senate seat to try to correct these shortcomings, championing a math-and-science initiative that could turn into this generation's moon shot. The two-time presidential candidate also believes the issue could help rescue his party from its doldrums, where Democrats outpace Republicans in every issue except leadership, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. During a recent interview as the Senate wrapped up a day of business, he started our talk by handing me a piece of paper that he carries around like a daily Bible verse. It featured this quote from Nobel Prize physicist Steven Chu: "The single most important thing that America must do is keep its edge in science and technology." Mr. Alexander and a few colleagues asked the National Academy of Sciences to outline the 10 most important things America can do to keep that edge. They came back with "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," a report that includes these goals: •Improve K-12 math and science education. •Strengthen the nation's commitment to research. •Increase the talent pool by improving higher education. •Provide more incentives structure for innovation. Each goal contains specific requests. They range from recruiting 10,000 science and math teachers to increasing federal investment in fundamental research to providing 25,000 new scholarships for U.S. undergrads to ensuring that all Americans have broadband Internet access. Mr. Alexander is drafting a bill with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to include these ideas. That's right, working with a Democrat. This is the sort of cause that transcends party politics, and that's one reason Mr. Alexander hopes President Bush makes it a centerpiece of his State of the Union message next month. Only the president, he says, can truly focus the nation on this need, and that includes reaching students like those I spoke with in Allen. The move would help the president, too. He needs domestic issues to save himself from a ruined presidency. Iraq's not going to do it, that's for sure. Mr. Alexander, of course, knows a few things about the presidency. The last you probably heard of him was when he was running for the White House in his red plaid shirt. He fell short of the GOP nomination in 1996 and 2000 because he doesn't ooze intimacy on the tube or hurl lightning bolts at opponents. But he does understand how policy and politics connect. Improving our math and science game could pay off for the economy and for both parties. It also can help those of us in the war-and-peace crowd stretch our minds in new ways.