Thomas Jefferson On Science

By March 13, 2006Taking It for Granted

Blog-Icon-MI.jpgI was walking back to the office last week and happened to find myself in front of the headquarters of The National Academies building, which houses the offices of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council. The National Academies bring together experts in science and technology to advise the government, business and the public on national issues in these fields.

Right by the front door, they have chiseled a quote of Thomas Jefferson’s that stopped me in my tracks: Our third president said, “liberty is the great parent of science and virtue; a nation will be great in both always in proportion as it is free.” Scientific advances stem from different sources and many of them come from the manufacturing sector’s R&D, which applies science and engineering continually in the search for new products and more efficient processes. How long will this fact be true in our country?

The United States has excelled in scientific discovery and application over the past century. Whether it was the Wright Brothers discovering and applying the principles of flight or the invention of the Salk and Sabin vaccines for polio, the United State has placed a high priority on the sciences. Many manufacturers are concerned that the lead we have today could evaporate if we don’t focus more on revitalizing fundamental research and expand the science, math and engineering talent pools here.

Last December, at the National Summit on Competitiveness, business and academic leaders issued a statement expressing their concern about trends that would have also caught Jefferson’s attention were he alive today:

–Asia now spends as much on nanotechnology as does the United States;
–Foreign-owned companies and foreign-born inventors now account for nearly half of all US patents;
–U.S. 12th-grade students recently performed below the international average of 21 countries on a test of general knowledge of math and science; and
–11 nations outperformed the United States in a 15-nation assessment of students’ skills in advanced mathematics. Students in four nations had scores similar to those of U.S. students, while no national scored significantly below the United States.

To read more about these challenges that surely affect the future of manufacturing, check out the National Academies’ October 2005 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm.