“I always hear stories about how we can’t find engineers, and that’s why we’re emphasizing Math and Science … We want to start making Science cool. I want people to feel about the next big energy breakthrough and the next big Internet breakthrough the same way they felt about the moonwalk.”
So said President Obama at a town hall meeting at Facebook’s headquarters yesterday. The President went on to say that he wanted to encourage females and minorities to pursue STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). “There’s got to be a shift in American culture when we realize this stuff is important,” he said.
First, American culture has always realized this “stuff” is important. Hence the phrase “American ingenuity.” But that isn’t the President’s only misunderstanding.
Second, the moonwalk is not remembered primarily as a technological breakthrough. It was an inspirational historical moment. While the people walking on the moon were scientists and engineers, they were not the scientists and engineers who designed and built the craft that took them to the moon. And the astronauts’ accomplishments were not due to their scientific background, but rather to their courage, preparation, and support from others. They were people who risked their lives to bring the scientific and technical efforts of others to their ultimate fruition. The reason the moonwalk captured the hearts and imaginations of the world is because it was an extremely risky, extremely dangerous adventure that was pulled off almost flawlessly as the result of the unwavering focus of government and industry on achieving that goal.
To compare it to some “internet breakthough”, by which he is implicitly referring to Facebook, does a disservice to the space program, then and now. And furthermore, none of the people who walked on the moon, designed the rockets, or worked in mission control became multi-billionaires doing it, which is important.
The need for American students to study STEM is one of the tired refrains in modern American politics. But plenty of people do study these things. They just don’t work in those fields. MIT grads are more likely to end up in the financial industry, where quants and traders are very well compensated, than in the semiconductor industry where the spectre of outsourcing to India and Asia will hang over their heads for their entire career.
As long as politicians tout the importance of STEM as being getting a job and global competition, the message won’t resonate. Any given individual student hearing this message is just as likely to conclude that all his classmates should study STEM to get jobs, but that he or she personally should continue working on their screenplay.
The real failure here is a total lack of leadership. If breakthroughs in energy and the internet are important, the government should explain the stakes. It should craft a “grand narrative” about our collective future if these breakthroughs are and are not pursued. This is not a hard story to write. The government should be able to articulate quite precisely with citations to demographic data what happens to the suburbs and rural areas at $5/gallon gas or $10/gallon gas. And how the resulting consolidation in urban areas would overload public transportation and services.
Likewise, the government should write the narrative of the alternative energy future, where energy is produced locally or regionally, without importing oil, or natural resources. How improvements in batteries and ultracapacitors could trigger an explosion in technologies of personal freedom that would alter the urban and suburban landscapes for the better.
But at present there is no narrative. And when there is no narrative, people believe the status quo will persist, even when all information points to the contrary.
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