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Will the Next Celebrity Scientist Please Stand Up?

By Todd Schweitzer

Earlier this month President Obama shot a marshmallow out of an air cannon, splattering the wallpaper of the elegant State Dining Room. The device was built by Joey Hudy, an eighth grader with Asperger’s syndrome who was invited to the president’s second annual celebration of the country’s young scientists.

The White House Science Fair, which also featured school-age robot-builders, budding marine biologists, and the teenage inventor of a dissolvable sugar packet, garnered a bit of media attention on a slow news day, and the marshmallow gun video went viral on YouTube.

Not bad. But compare that to two days earlier, when 166.8 million people tuned in to watch Super Bowl XLVI.

The Big Game is emblematic of our nation’s hero-worship of professional athletes. Kids want to grow up to be them, young adults want to hang out with them, and older adults fantasize that with a little more practice they could have made it, too. They are also paid like heroes: the two starting quarterbacks earned more than $26 million in salaries last year, not including the millions in sponsorships and endorsements.

When was the last time we celebrated our scientists to a similar degree?

It might sound a bit far-fetched to suggest that we fete men and women in lab coats with the same degree of passion and enthusiasm as we celebrate a Tom Brady or an Eli Manning. But the truth is that our country desperately needs more experts in science, technology, engineering and math.

The American economy increasingly depends on high-value goods and services. Low tech is old news in the U.S., and the new knowledge-based industries, such as biotechnology and high-tech manufacturing, require more scientists and engineers than ever before. The National Science Foundation points out that American companies are hiring more R&D personnel — but 85 percent of the new hires are foreigners in labs outside the United States.

Moreover, the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world in math and science education, putting us at risk for a long-term economic slowdown. For more than a decade, our K-12 math and science scores have remained below those of nations such as China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and others. U.S. students’ math scores have the dubious honor of placing 25th among the 34 industrialized countries of the world, despite the U.S. spending the world’s seventh-highest amount of money per student. As other nations build top-notch science universities and encourage their youth to pursue math and science, they become better positioned to compete in the knowledge economy. Today, Shanghai’s middle schoolers outperform ours in every subject.

America’s scientists and engineers are critical to our entrepreneurial culture. Small businesses in the U.S. produce more than half the nation’s GDP, and employ almost half our private workforce. We depend on entrepreneurial hubs like Silicon Valley and Cambridge to create new products, new industries, and new jobs. For instance, a recent Kauffman Foundation report notes that MIT alumni have founded more than 25,000 currently active companies, employing 3.3 million people. We must recognize that entrepreneurism today relies on the quality (and quantity) of our scientists and engineers. In the 21st-century economy, a successful venture will almost always require technological innovation. Without our scientists and engineers, the well of entrepreneurial talent will quickly dry up.

We also need to make a cultural shift. We need to make science cool again. We need to celebrate our experts, so that eager young scientists pursue their interests, established researchers continue innovating, and the United States remains competitive in the global economy.

At the White House Science Fair, President Obama went off-script to make a special plea to the press corps: “This is the kind of stuff … that’s going to make a bigger difference in the life of our country over the long term than just about anything. And it doesn’t belong just on the back pages of a newspaper; we’ve got to lift this up.”

When I was in middle school, Bill Nye the Science Guy was my favorite show on television. It was funny and fascinating, and it connected kids my age with scientific concepts in a way that had never been done before. From watching his show I became eager to tinker with home chemistry sets, compete in science fairs, and engage in science classes. But Bill Nye was alone in the world of celebrity scientists. Despite his show being discontinued years ago, Nye was the featured guest at the White House Science Fair last week — a telling indication of today’s dearth of celebrity scientists and engineers. For young Americans looking for high-profile inventors and researchers, there are few to be found.

We need to celebrate our scientific high achievers. School science fairs should be tremendous events that excite students. Regional and national science fairs should be broadcasted, publicized, and covered in the media. And we need to find and commend role models in science, engineering, and math, whom young Americans can aspire to be like.

Imagine the impact on our economy if we praised our scientists and engineers like we do our athletes. Young thinkers like Joey Hudy represent the next generation of American innovators, inventors, and problem solvers. They should be encouraged to continue their scientific pursuits, and we owe them our support and praise.

Todd Schweitzer won first place in his sixth-grade science fair and is now a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. HKS Democrats leadership reviews and approves all op-eds that appear in this space.

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