- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

The leader of America's largest science association will give the customary "presidential address" here this weekend, but the more telling event may be his session Friday on "the science of baseball." American science is having a very good year.

Science funding is up, public comprehension has improved, and science is all the talk on Capitol Hill as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meets in Washington for the first time in a decade.

"There's no drop in public belief that science and technology will improve their lives," said Jon Miller, a Northwestern University professor who polls public attitudes.

Five years ago, it was feared that science funding would be cut by 30 percent to balance the federal budget by 2002.

Now, science is called the force behind the economic surplus.

"There's a recognition that the U.S. economy's strength is due in part to the new technologies: biotechnology, information technology and how these help manufacturing and service industries," said Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS' R&D; budget and policy program.

Funding for "basic research" the laboratory efforts with no immediate demand for results has shot up from 14 percent of the federal science budget in 1980 to 24 percent of the proposed 2001 budget of $85 billion.

The upswing also comes as Washington, for the first time since 1946, is thinking strategically about science. Two years ago a House panel issued the report, "Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy."

The blueprint urged an emphasis on "basic research" and prodded scientists to more effectively communicate their work to the public.

This has been good news to laboratory and field scientists, who in the past two decades saw their budgets cut to emphasize "development," or the building of products for the military or marketplace.

The nation's familiarity with science also is creeping upward.

Fifteen percent of Americans are scientifically literate and another quarter "moderately" so.

If the nation had 30 percent full science literacy, Mr. Miller said, "We would not be bad off in a modern society."

Nine in ten Americans agree that it is "important for our daily lives to know some science," and that translates into the most scientifically literate adult population in the world.

Such literacy, Mr. Miller said, helps explain why the U.S. did not experience the "panic or scare" over bio-engineered food seen in Europe last year.

The annual AAAS meeting, "Science in an Uncertain Millennium," expects to draw 5,000 scientists to 170 symposiums and lectures through Tuesday at the Omni Shoreham and Marriott Wardman Park Hotels.

The presidential address by Harvard paleontologist and science essayist Stephen Jay Gould comes Saturday.

But first the baseball.

On a panel Friday, Mr. Gould will discuss the mathematical probability of a baseball player hitting 71 home runs, beating the record of Mark McGwire. Another scientist will probe, "The Rising FastBall and Ideal Bat Weights."

The ballpark cheerfulness is contrasted by what some call an impending crisis in science education and research.

"I don't use the word crisis," said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, Michigan Republican and the first physicist elected to Congress.

Yet he said the nation's scientific prowess "shouldn't be taken for granted." Public school science lags behind and U.S. research is less of its gross national product than it is in Germany.

"The fact is, we are falling short in both categories," he said.

Mr. Ehlers, who last month visited the Fermilab in Illinois, was chairman of the "Unlocking Our Future" report. He said that lawmakers and the public easily forget that research bypasses immediate payoffs for long-term discovery.

"The irony of basic research is that you never know where it is going to end up," he said.

The only problem with the recent generous research funding, he added, is its unevenness. The largest share goes to biomedical research under the National Institutes of Health, leading to a neglect of physics, chemistry and engineering, he said.

The NIH is earmarked for $18.1 billion in the administration's proposed 2001 science budget. The National Science Foundation, which makes grants for a wider array of research, will get $3.4 billion and the Energy Department $7.6 billion under that budget.

In recent months, Mr. Ehlers has backed legislation to strengthen science standards and teacher education in public schools. He said that in college "students just opt out of science" and that "more non-Americans than Americans" fill the graduate science slots.

Last fall, Scientific American published "The False Crisis in Science Education," which said that such gloomy news about Americans and science is a "cyclical ritual" in education and politics.

"We don't have a shortage of well-trained scientists and engineers, nor do we have a shortage of research," said Iris Rotberg, research professor of education policy at George Washington University.

"What we do need is more highly qualified science teachers, especially in lower-income schools, and that will take new kinds of incentives," she said.

Ms. Rotberg has been particularly critical of the International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which ranked American students very low in 1999.

She said the comparison of U.S. and other students is "flawed." By domestic measures, "The evidence is the reverse" and American students show "steady gains" in math and science scores.

The Scientific American article, however, did match the concerns of a new AAAS review of science textbooks, which found them bearing too much information rather than focusing on basic concepts in science.

Mr. Miller, the Northwestern professor, also argued that science curriculum spreads science too thin over several years and divides students on fast and slow tracks rather than challenging all of them.

"At the same time, our schools are the sports capital of the world," he said.

Columbia University science philosopher Philip Kitcher said that "the proper role of science in a democratic society" is still not clear in the United States.

"It is important to straighten that out here simply because of the vast size of the research budget," Mr. Kitcher said.

He and others have cited the split between scientists who begrudge public curbs on their research, and the public that resents not understanding what scientists really are up to.

"The public has a very incomplete understanding of where scientific research is going, and the scientific community is often advertising to the public things that [it] can't possibly deliver," he said.

Despite the sometimes exaggerated promises of genetic research, he said, the revolution it will bring in health insurance and medical ethics is only a decade away.

"We are about to lurch into an age of considerable chaos around medical applications of genetic knowledge," he said.

One step, he said, was the NIH's recent report, "Scientific Opportunities and Public Needs." "That is a start to thinking about this problem, but I think a lot more needs to be done," Mr. Kitcher said.

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