Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Knowledge Arms Race

We are ill prepared for the global knowledge arms race. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

  • Only 27% of Americans see scientific advancement as one of our nation's top achievements

  • 30% of Americans place little or no trust in what scientists report about the environment

  • Compared with students from developed nations, 15-year-old Americans rank 21st in science and 25th in math.
Addressing these issues, in particular the latter, will take decades of hard work. It will require a cultural shift and a renaissance of 'old-fashioned' values: the commitment of a large part of society to engage in science and engineering studies and careers and by doing so delay gratification. The public needs to come to grips with the realization that technology needs nurturing and substantial time to grow. A long term investment strategy for knowledge incubation needs to stop the practice of using quarterly 401k-statements, share-holder meetings and elections as an appropriate moment to judge the potential of emerging technologies.

Oversimplification driven by the desire to score political points needs to be more challenged in the public arena. The uneducated and untrained mind will be tempted by the path of least resistance and no change, which is rarely the right course of action. Thomas Jefferson warned about the connection of freedom and knowledge :
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

All educational institutions from K-12 to research active universities need to radically transform themselves to be able to live up to their responsibilities. Teaching needs to be re-focused and schools and universities need to adopt frugality as a leitmotif and move away from education being "an experience". We need to start an open discussion of cherished academic practices such as tenure and sabbatical leave - to ensure that these privileges continue to be available they need to be continuously earned and not just be seen as an open-ended entitlement.

And it also calls for an end to education being the favorite 'political red meat' fed to the public by politicians looking for a 'wedge issue'. Instead education needs to be valued again as an important asset to meet future challenges.

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