San Diego has two distinct, yet conflicting characteristics. While our region is a global center for biotechnology and high technology, it also has a dire shortage of local workers trained in those industries.
By no means is this problem peculiar to our region, though. It is a national dilemma, according to a New York Times article sometime back in which the writer observed that the United States has started to lose its worldwide dominance in critical areas of science and innovation.
"Foreign advances in basic science now often rival or even exceed America's, apparently with little public awareness of the trend or its implications for jobs, industry, national security or the vigor of the nation's intellectual and cultural life," wrote William J. Broad, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter.
Many other countries, according to the article, have long realized that science and technology are key to economic growth and prosperity and have committed vast resources to taking over the United States' dominant position.
For example, the number of scientific papers by American scientists peaked a decade ago and then fell by roughly 10 percent in the years since, according to the National Science Foundation. Today, Europe -- not America -- is the world's most prolific producer of scientific literature.
On yet another front, the numbers of new doctorates in the sciences in the U.S. peaked in 1998 and then fell 5 percent just a year later, creating a loss of more than 1,300 potential scientists in just those two years, according to the National Science Foundation.
The situation prompted one expert observer, Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to ask: "Who will do the science of this millennium?"
It's a good question, because the science and technology dilemma has its roots in the K-12 system, where not enough young people have been taking the foundational math and science courses they need to later become engineers, scientists and technology workers. In fact, U.S. 12th graders performed among the lowest of 21 countries assessed in math and science in a recent international study.
In San Diego and elsewhere, many technology companies have had to hire workers who are educated and trained outside the United States to fill positions requiring scientific and technical expertise.
Nobody believes that to be an acceptable solution, least of all the companies that need the workers. Sometime ago, the San Diego business community made the commitment to educate a "home grown" work force in the skills these companies and industries need.
The Business Roundtable for Education assisted Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs and others in the creation of High Tech High School as a charter school where students are acquiring the preparatory education in math, science and engineering they will need to be trained for the high-tech work force. Now, a High Tech Middle charter school adjacent to the high school campus instills in its students the zeal and academic preparation in math and science they will need at High Tech High -- and beyond.
The Roundtable has also promoted math and science education in other public schools through its Best Practices programs over the years. This program identified and disseminated information about outstanding educational practices taking place in our area's public and private schools. Of the 36 practices identified in the 2002-03 school year, 15 directly pertained to the teaching of mathematics, science and technology.
These are good first steps, but the challenge to beef up math and science curricula in our middle and high schools requires much more. Fortunately, more help is on the way from the federal government. Just a little more than two months ago, President Bush announced the "Better Education for Better Jobs" initiative that is intended, in part, to strengthen math and science education in our public schools and motivate young people to pursue math and science in college.
The program increases funding for the Mathematics and Science Partnership Program -- specifically, an additional $120 million in federal assistance for schools to provide extra help to middle and high school students who fall behind in math. The proposal also provides incentives for math and science professionals from the private sector to teach those courses in high school. To motivate teachers to teach math and science, the program includes $227 million in loan forgiveness for math, science and special education teachers in low-income schools.
Also included are expanded opportunities for math and education in colleges and universities through the establishment of a public-private partnership that would provide $100 million in grants to qualified low-income students who study math or science.
This, too, is but a start in the battle we must now wage to protect our nation's pre-eminence in science and technology for the next generation of Americans.
It is a battle in which we have no choice but to win.
Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at email@example.com.