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Science: America's Engine of Economic Success

Public Higher Education Superstar

Ernest O. Lawrence, graduate of the University of South Dakota, B.A. won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939 and was a pioneer in nuclear physics at the University of California, Berkeley.

University of Maryland Entomological Lab, 1899.

After World War II, the Cold War and competition with the USSR provided the rationale for research in science, technology, engineering, and math. The federal government invested heavily in order to maintain the U.S.’s supremacy as a global superpower. After the Vietnam War, public sector support for scientific research and development declined. Big corporations, such as Boeing, General Dynamics, and Grumman filled the gap. By 1977, the private sector was investing more than the government in basic research. President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. Star Wars) increased public funds to higher education research in the 1980s, but this outlay fell again in the1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Recent developments in the world economy have made it even more important to invest in scientific and technological research. As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted recently “Science education is central to our broader effort to restore American leadership in education worldwide. . .”

Keeping America competitive in the future requires creating jobs in areas like green energy, nanotech, health care, and engineering. Most of the future scientists, engineers, teachers and technicians who will work in these areas will be educated at public colleges and universities, which 80% of all students attend. From the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 onward, public higher education has played a crucial role in the advancement of science; it is this legacy which must be carried on into the twenty-first century.

University of Massachusetts professors and student testing engineering laboratory equipment, c. 1965.
Professor Elizabeth Dyer and her students in a science lab at the University of Delaware, c. 1950.
Horticulture students at the Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University), c. 1897-1898.
Students at Valencia Community College conduct biology experiment, 2009.
Students in the Minority Access to Research Careers at California State University, Fullerton, c. 2005.