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America's young scientists at risk

Today's awards ceremony in Stockholm celebrates the 2010 Nobel Prize winners and the ability of curiosity-driven men and women to open doors on previously undiscovered areas of knowledge. But it comes on the heels of a disturbing recent report from the National Academies of Sciences warning that the United States is continuing to slide toward relinquishing its position as the world's top innovator.

That accolade instead seems to be shifting to other nations, particularly in Asia, that are making the necessary investments in science and engineering education and research that drive so much of the world's economy.

"Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5" provides a troubling sequel to an influential 2005 study that called for action and investment in 20 specific areas of science, math and engineering education, research and science and technology policy. But as the hurricane metaphor in the report's title broadcasts, our nation is more at risk than ever: "It would appear that overall the United States' long-term competitiveness outlook (read jobs) has further deteriorated," according to the blue-ribbon panel that prepared the new analysis.

Scientific- and engineering-based enterprise leads to the sorts of technologies, products, services and jobs that give life and momentum to a nation's economy. These challenging budgetary times, however, require innovation in how we support our country's young scientists and engineers at points in their professional lives when they often are the most creative. We need new approaches not just from government but also by the private sector and philanthropic community.

I was fortunate to have shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2009, with two colleagues, for fundamental discoveries about the structure and behavior of chromosomes. As a young scientist 20 years ago, however, I couldn't have imagined that our work would later bear so directly on cancer and age-related disease. But fortunately I received support to pursue the biological and clinical connections of this basic research.

Early in my scientific career, I was the beneficiary of a four-year award in biomedical sciences from a program run by the Pew Charitable Trusts that has supported more than 500 early-career scientists in its 25-year history. The funds helped me pursue my research, of course, but more important in the long run was the confidence the award gave me to ask bold questions. Subsequent support for over 20 years from the National Institutes of Health allowed me to continue pursuing connections of basic science to disease.

Too many creative young scientists today, however, fail to receive such funding when it can serve them — and their country — the most. It takes a forward-looking country to open educational and career pathways to train young scientists, but there is also a strong pragmatic argument for doing so. In this increasingly competitive world, we need to renew and intensify our national commitment to science and engineering, with a focus on education and research.

Carol W. Greider, director of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins University, shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and also won the 2006 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. Teresa Szymanik is an assistant to Greider.

© 2010 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

America's young scientists at risk 12/09/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:39pm]
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