A recent exchange in the New York Times, prompted by Gardiner Harris’s article outlining the Obama administration’s effort to promote STEM education, is well worth reading. The piece analyzes and expands on a comment that Obama recently made to Bloomberg Business News, stating that the promotion of science literacy is one of the few national issues he will continue to actively pursue in his post-presidency.
As his tenure draws to a close, President Obama has made it known that he wants the return of science to the public sphere to be a lasting legacy of his administration. The cornerstone of that effort has been brokering international agreements with countries like China, so that the world community can face the threat about has provoked outrage among the scientific community or decades: Global Warming. But the President’s penchant for using the Bully Pulpit to advancing scientific causes does not end with environment. Obama has fought for funding to map the human brain, proposed massively increasing grants for cancer research, and continues to tout science as the key to America’s longterm economic prospects .
In order for scientific solutions to America's most pressing challenges to work, however, America needs much more of two vital resources. First, the country needs a reservoir of driven, talented young people inspired to devote their lives to science. Second, America needs widespread science literacy among its citizens, so that the electorate knows enough to choose the policies that will harness science to improve lives.
Unlike the vast majority of recent presidents, Barack Obama has placed particular emphasis on the need to foster education in STEM fields, spearheading a legislative agenda that has resulted in over one billion dollars in federal funds being directed to the training of STEM teachers.
The President has also displayed his passion for science education in smaller ways. He was the first President to propose that a science fair be held in the historic halls of the White House every year, observing that it was wrong to continue to welcome the nation’s top athletes within the Peoples House, if the First Family did not also play host to students with the potential to become the Nobel Laureates of the future.
Some of Obama’s favorite anecdotes, the kind of he regularly deploys to spice up a policy speech, come from the children and students he has met through the freshly inaugurated science fairs. The President often reflects out loud about the impact of his conversations with budding biologists like Elana Simon, who struggled with an uncommon form of liver cancer and helped search for its genetic source before she even left high school.
The President has also publicized his habit of devouring science publications in his (acutely constrained) free time. In addition to regularly making his way through richly informative scientific tomes authored by authorities like Elizabeth Kolbert, Atul Gawande, and Liu CiXin, Obama is also the only Commander in Chief in American History to write a paper for a scientific journal while in office. His paper appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed shock at the ease with which President Obama deployed technical terms like microplate, multiparameter cytometer, and gel electrophoresis in conversation, the Times also quotes Dr. Harold Varmus as being “really surprised by the avidity of his interest."
The President has admitted that he was regrettably disinterested in science when he first experimented with it in his youth; still, it’s easy to see why Obama is radiating enthusiasm about “gel electrophoresis “ and taking time out of his geopolitics-packed schedule to chat with schoolchildren about their science projects. The effort is part of a concerted push to advance the status of STEM education in the United States, which has lagged behind its Asian and European allies in science literacy for decades.
In years directly preceding and succeeding the Second World War, the United States’ school and university level science programs were the envy of the world and powered the American victories, both in the marketplace and on the battlefield, that secured the country’s superpower status. For Obama, maintaining America’s global influence and standing means stemming the tide of STEM inadequacy before it’s too late. With congressional gridlock at historic levels, the President's ability to model the kind of insatiable scientific curiosity he wants to take root in American schoolchildren may be the last meaningful contribution to science education his administration can make.
After reading about the President’s evangelical efforts on behalf of STEM education in the paper of record, Smita Bakshi, CEO of a Silicon Valley based education company, wrote a letter that perfectly encapsulates the growing consensus surrounding the need for a national campaign for renewed science literacy.
"The Obama administration’s push to elevate the importance of science and scientific research has provided a significant boost to those of us involved in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), not to mention the lifelong impression made on the hard-working young scientists who participated in a White House Science Fair….But the reality for the many students who go on to follow a STEM track in college is disconcerting. Entering higher education essentially underprepared for the coursework, more than 50 percent of them either change their degree paths or leave college entirely. Without well-supported, inspiring science and math programs at the K-12 level, this trend will not improve. Students with potential may never be given the basic tools to succeed.”
Read both the original New York Times article and Smita Bakshi’s August 12th letter in full here: