Purdue News

January 2006

A monthly letter from President Martin C. Jischke

Dear Purdue Partners,

In the November 2005 edition of this monthly letter, I discussed my growing concern that America's national security and economic strength are being undermined by our failure to educate enough scientists and engineers. Other nations — especially in Asia — have begun to outpace the United States in the academic disciplines that will be the key to global competitiveness, and if we wait too long to react, we may lose our position as the world's strongest and most prosperous nation.

Reaction to that letter was intense and extensive. Many recipients wrote back to share their own concerns, ask follow-up questions or suggest ways to meet the challenge. Many newspapers printed the letter, and others published editorials based on my comments. Meanwhile, leaders in government, higher education and business have spoken out on this important and disturbing issue. It is clear to me that the people of America, including the citizens of Indiana, understand well we cannot afford to be complacent about educating all young people in the scientific and technological disciplines or about preparing more of them for careers in these fields.

Therefore, it was very gratifying to hear President George Bush address the problem and propose some steps toward solutions in his State of the Union address on January 31. The president, in his American Competitiveness Initiative, proposes to:

• Double federal spending on basic research through the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department's Office of Science and the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology;

• Make permanent and increase the research and development tax credit as a way of encouraging corporate investment in discovery initiatives; and

• Invest $380 million in 2007 to improve the teaching of math and science at the elementary and high school levels.

Full details of President Bush's proposal are not available as I write this, but this recognition by our nation's leader that America's future is linked to the discovery of new knowledge and the education of our young people is extremely encouraging. While enactment of the American Competitiveness Initiative is by no means assured, the fact that it is now part of the national debate is an important first step. We have recognized the challenge.

There are other promising signs. In early January, I was one of the higher education representatives invited to Washington, D.C., to participate in the University Presidents Summit on International Education, hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. President Bush, other key members of his administration and First Lady Laura Bush also participated.

The primary focus of the meetings was the challenge of facilitating the involvement of international scholars in American higher education while maintaining national security. The high-level government officials present were clearly concerned about this issue, actively engaged in the discussion and made it clear they are determined to help our universities continue to foster study by students and professors from other nations.

Although I am very encouraged by these and other signs that our nation understands the need for action on these important intellectual fronts, I'm not ready to paint a rosy picture yet. A lot of hard work will be needed to move the proposed federal initiatives forward, and if Congress enacts them, they are only the first step in a long journey.

It's also important to recognize that the problems must be attacked at every level of government, by business, social institutions, schools, universities and families. Not every young student can or should choose to pursue a science or technical discipline as a lifelong career. We can make sure, however, that each of them is well-informed about the opportunities those fields offer and that each of them has a solid foundation so that he or she can make an informed decision. We can provide financial incentives for teachers who become proficient in these disciplines, and we can offer scholarships and loans to students who qualify for university study.

Equally important is support for basic research, which is indispensable to the development and improvement of products, the improvement of health, the preservation of the environment, the creation of new energy sources and all the things that are part of the churn that creates prosperity.

All of this starts with education — with children beginning to learn at home; with schools that inspire them to excel in classroom; with universities that allow them to reach their full potential; with business, governmental and social institutions that turn ideas into a higher quality of life. America became the great nation it is by allowing its people to make it great. If we invest wisely in our young people, they will continue that legacy and make the future even better.


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