Commentary | America’s Seed Corn Crisis

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In “Ransoming Our Future” [Commentary, Oct. 21, page 19], Dr. Sandy Magnus has very precisely captured my own sentiments with respect to the industry. “We need to return to a long-term mindset that strategically takes into account the roles that science and technology play in the economic future of the nation,” Magnus writes. Let me expand on the academic sector.

I believe that our seed corn is at more than a precipitous level: If we do not change our course in the next year, especially as other nations increase their budgets and participation in space technology and exploration, we will have fully lost the gains of the Apollo era. The declining investments in research and development (R&D), and education at all levels will be reflected in our decreased economic well-being, decreased jobs, loss of new 21st century innovations and loss of international prestige. 

Consider that 70 percent or more of the Ph.D. students in the United States studying engineering are foreign nationals, and they are returning to their home countries. Those principal countries are China and India. While at one time it was only a question of retaining them in the U.S. with green cards, recent data presented by Dr. Charles Vest, the former president of the National Academy of Engineering, indicates that it is also the pull of emerging businesses and national goals in their home countries. China’s recent launch of a lunar lander/rover and India’s interest in its own human spaceflight program are testimonies to first-class graduate educations in the U.S. and other spacefaring nations. At the same time, we are unable to find sufficient U.S. citizen graduate students to replenish our own retiring aerospace workforce or to ensure the retention of critical national skills.

Ph.D.s are also the future faculty members on which we rely to educate our workforce and to be the university principal investigators for government-funded research. If we are not educating our own, and those from other countries are returning, who will be left to teach engineering, physics, chemistry and mathematics in our universities? The seed corn of education is fast disappearing.

Not only graduate students are at risk but so is the undergraduate population. As the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology stated in 2012, we need 1 million new STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates in the next 10 years to stay competitive. At the present time, and for the last 30 years, our annual nationwide graduation rate has hovered around 90,000 engineers per year. Less than 5 percent of the undergraduates of most Tier One research universities chose to major in engineering. However, in many Asian countries, where engineering is recognized as the pathway to the future, some universities cite as high as 45 percent of the undergraduates are majoring in engineering. China graduates 10 times as many engineers as the United States, and India four times as many. But then we shouldn’t be surprised. As a society we give little recognition or credit to those who designed, created and invented the physical world in which we live.

As a retired Rockwell International engineer who helped to build Space Shuttle Columbia, as a former NASA engineer and astronaut who was part of the STEM movement invention in the late 1990s, I hear the words, but I do not see the action from Washington or the urgency which should propel it. What we need, from my point of view:

Vision

Like many of my generation, I was a product of the inspiration of the first Apollo missions to the Moon, when I was just a 9-year-old girl on a cattle ranch in rural Washington state. In fact, most members of my freshmen engineering class were inspired to enter engineering because of lunar exploration. The nation has benefited immeasurably from its exploration beyond Earth, and the educational inspiration of that exploration has supported all branches and disciplines of science and engineering. Reference the recent European Interparliamentary Space Conference devoted to education (www.eisc-europa.eu) — they understand the hook of space to incentivize their future workforce. Or closer to home, my sister who teaches third grade reassures me that “space” is still the most influential inspiration for students to study science and mathematics. 

I urge President Barack Obama to adhere to his pre-election promise to return humans to the Moon and send them on to Mars — goals that began with President John F. Kennedy and helped to accelerate the nation’s prosperity and technological preeminence for the last 50 years and could do so again for the next 50. 

Incidentally, by many estimates, the first year of stimulus funds (about $152 billion in 2008) would have funded a 10-year development program in support of a human mission to the Moon and on to Mars, thereby pushing new R&D that would have laid the foundation for innovation, new technologies and manufacturing jobs in the private sector, resulting in many more long-term 21st century jobs. That formula worked in the last half of the 20th century and now China is also following that pathway. That the current NASA budget is less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget (less than $20 billion a year) and declining says much about our lack of commitment to the future — our lack of vision, and our lack of educational investment.

STEM Grants and Loans

Implement an undergraduate educational program similar to that funded by the Dwight Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations: the National Defense Education Act. It helped academically strong but financially stressed students such as myself into engineering and the hard sciences, and educated kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) teachers in math, chemistry, physics and biology. In today’s dollars, that would be $2 billion to $3 billion — one of the best investments we could make for our future and one of the best made in the past. 

This is not a new or unique recommendation. Similar recommendations have been made by the National Academies through the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” studies in 2005 and 2010, and by the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology. 

STEM K-12

Reinstate the 30 percent of K-12 STEM funding moved by the White House Office of Management and Budget from NASA into the Department of Education and other destinations and provide an integrated national strategy to ensure that we have an aerospace workforce in the coming decades. These funds were not only delivered directly to K-12 programs administered through NASA centers, but were also delivered through university grants in the planetary sciences so that all states could benefit. By agreement decades ago, especially in the original 1958 Space Act, public aerospace education was delegated to NASA. There is no subject matter equivalence for aerospace in the Department of Education or the National Science Foundation. Teachers have also depended upon NASA-provided content. We need to inspire our students to learn as much as we need to measure what they have learned. Indeed, an inspired student is much easier to teach and eventually much more successful. Aviation and space are still some of the strongest learning motivators into all STEM fields. 

It is equally disturbing that the Office of Management and Budget has taken the position that NASA public education about aviation and space exploration is “marketing” or “lobbying,” and therefore prohibited. This is not based on either government law or guiding principles. The original Space Act mandated that NASA educate the public about space, just as the National Science Foundation educates the public on issues related to science and the Environmental Protection Agency educates about climate change. There is no other publicly funded agency with this mission. The current position is detrimental to national technical literacy and STEM competitiveness and should be reversed. We have a responsibility, if not an imperative, to educate a technically literate society. 

Additionally, since not every school has the Internet in classroom settings and not every family has a computer at home, we cannot rely on teachers and students finding the NASA website for STEM content. We need to reinstate the NASA budget for classroom print and distributable electronic materials, as well as to provide more NASA prominence at national teacher meetings and youth conferences. 

Moreover, we need to reinstate astronaut and engineer school visits, which were originally part of annual outreach travel budgets. Now schools must raise their own reimbursable travel funds in an era of constrained resources. At a recent visit to a large middle school in a large urban area, I learned that not a single student knew that the U.S.-led international space station was in Earth orbit — or that it could be seen from the ground without binoculars. Aerospace was not in the middle school required curriculum. 

With the termination of the space shuttle program and no human space launches from American soil, our formerly pre-eminent space program is no longer an integral part of the school curriculum. Perhaps there is a correlation with the ninth-grade Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math scores. Those just released show that the U.S. is below the international median, and slipping. Many of our urban schools, such as those in Washington, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta and New York, as reported by a 2010 Harvard study, rank below more than 40 other nations and are equated with “several Latin American countries” in the bottom quartile of world math scores. We are once again at a 1957 Sputnik moment. How will we respond this time?

Graduate School

Increase graduate school stipends to be competitive so that our bachelor’s of science students are incentivized into master’s and doctoral degrees. At the present time, a U.S. citizen student may be fortunate to receive $30,000 a year to study for a three-year Ph.D. in aerospace-related sciences or engineering (assuming there are NASA research funds into those areas to award to faculty) when he or she could easily demand up to $100,000 after graduating with a bachelor’s of science in engineering. (At the University of Houston, we have four engineering jobs available for every graduate.) With loans to repay it is an easy choice. 

At the same time, graduate students from China may not only receive a U.S. research stipend but they are also probably receiving a stipend from China. Recently, a large aerospace company was surprised to learn that all of the Ph.D. students they were funding in cybersecurity at a large nationally ranked research university were foreign nationals, and most of them Chinese. Without U.S. graduate students, it is difficult for universities to propose for government grants and impossible for the government agencies to rely on university research for engineering and scientific data or for the universities to provide talent for future workforces. It also doesn’t bode well for the new and emerging private space transportation companies. Most of the U.S. companies now vying for human spaceflight traffic are depending on research and talent provided by a U.S.-educated workforce.

Space Technology R&D Investment

In both 2008 and 2011, I participated in nearly yearlong studies with the National Academy of Engineering to help prioritize our nation’s space technology investments with the assumption that funding would be provided for these future investments. We brought together the best and brightest to help lay the framework for our nation’s future, only to learn later that Congress and the administration could not agree on funding and strategy, and that the Office of Management and Budget inserted its own set of priorities, sometimes not supported by the laws of physics. 

By most accounts, the outcome has been a programmatic disaster for the nation. While we have not been investing in the future of space R&D, and in fact have been terminating funding, our publicly available reports are being used by other nations to develop their own roadmaps. Instead, we have been starving our NASA research centers, which are uniquely qualified to lead the nation’s future aerospace research and development. We are forcing some of the brightest, uniquely qualified, dedicated engineers and scientists resident at NASA to leave, and we are losing them quickly. It must be remembered that this is intellectual capital that has been developed over decades and it is not easily replaced. It certainly is not replaced by a newly graduated engineer. 

The reduction of funding for NASA R&D has also affected university grants, and sadly interrupted or ended the Ph.D. education for hundreds of graduate students. This unprecedented breach of trust between the graduate students and the government could be an underlying cause for our lack of graduate student applicants and loss of faculty.

Recent disclosure that the Congressional Budget Office has suggested the possibility of terminating human spaceflight for the near term in order to save a very small percentage of the federal budget is also alarming. This is a highly complex, technical and economic infrastructure requiring specifically educated skill sets that cannot easily be shut off and on. We have built it over the last 50 years. Terminate it now, and the ripple effect could mean that our capabilities will be lost for decades, if not forever. 

It is equally concerning that the public largely does not recognize the situation because it believes through the social and mainstream media that commercial companies such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. will be taking the nation to the Moon and Mars. While we would all like to see that future vision in decades to come, that is not the near-term reality. At present, the investments and risks of space exploration are most successfully assumed through respective national government agencies. Those commercial companies competing to take passengers to the space station or low Earth orbit are not investing in the exploration R&D and STEM education we discussed in our academy reports. If the government is not funding R&D in its own labs, such as NASA, or funding the universities and therefore faculty and students, and the commercial companies have no market incentive to do so but are signing Space Act Agreements to obtain it from NASA, just who is expected to make it happen? I was raised on a farm where common sense dictates that you always maintain your supply of seed corn. Our seed corn is fast disappearing.

On one final point with which I agree with Dr. Magnus: There is little investment at the current time by our government in the type of strategic thinking with respect to our aerospace education and industry that will keep our nation great. The educational-research-development system by which the United States built its science and technology base over the last 100 years has been the envy of the world. This system helped us to prevail in two World Wars, put the United States on the Moon, helped us to lead in technology development, patents and Nobel prizes, yielded one of the best educational systems in the world and provided the environment for companies to thrive and to produce products that have transformed our world. Why are we allowing that to unravel?

What will the future historians say as we fade into history? Leadership and prosperity are not given. They are earned. For the future of this nation, I respectively request that the Congress and the president sit down at the table together, listen to their subject matter experts and fund the nation’s aerospace architecture and educational strategy at the levels that are required to retain leadership and security. Anything less is an abrogation of the responsibilities they assumed when they were elected.

 

Bonnie J. Dunbar, Ph.D., National Academy of Engineering, is the M.D. Anderson Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Houston, director of the Cullen College of Engineering aerospace graduate program and director of the UH STEM Center. She is a former NASA astronaut who flew on five space shuttle missions.