Broaden SMART To Stop the Brain Drain

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The Kennedy-Collins Amendment to the 2006 Defense Appropriations Bill is a critical step in addressing the urgent national need to ensure we have the scientists and engineers necessary to guarantee U.S. national security.

The amendment doubles the $10 million funding for the Science, Mathematics, And Research For Transformation (SMART)/National Defense Education Program, which aims to attract undergraduate and graduate students to study science and engineering critical to national defense. In addition, it provides an additional $30 million for defense research, most of it basic university research.

While an important initial step, the problems this act addresses are broader than national defense, and much more needs to be done.

National security is more than national defense — it is also economic security, and that security is built on leadership in technology.

Much of the technology and economic leadership we enjoy today is built on equity gained from the very successful National Defense Education Act of 1958 that provided funding for education programs in math and science.

Spurred by Cold War concerns about Russia’s launch of Sputnik and the Space Race, this act, and associated research, helped motivate, inspire and educate a generation of scientists and engineers who took our nation to the Moon, cementing a technological leadership that became the envy of the world, and delivered an unprecedented level of economic dominance.

Now that generation of scientists and engineers is retiring, and we are not replenishing them. In the intervening years, students have drifted away from pursuing scientific fields of study. A recent survey revealed that more than 5,000 science and engineering positions in defense-related fields are unfilled.

Competition will grow fiercer in the coming years because the Department of Defense must compete with private industry for the limited number of qualified candidates that will be available. It is projected that by 2010 the national demand for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), employees will rise by 10 percent.

While the Kennedy-Collins SMART amendment will help address the need for more scientists and engineers to support the requirements of the Department of Defense, we need to expand both the scope and the breadth of the program. The bill can be strengthened in several ways.

Recognizing that trained scientists and engineers also are needed outside the Department of Defense, we need to integrate the program across the technology-driven federal enterprises, such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others. Plus, since some of the most critical national means lie within the private sector, it is imperative we consider the requirements there too.

Fifty-two Space Grant Universities exist within the United States and Puerto Rico. Affiliate institutions from academia, industry, government and nonprofit organizations make up this national program. They are involved in work-force development, education at all levels and research in science, engineering, aeronautics, aviation, and all areas of interest to NASA and the broader aerospace community.

These consortia enable a diverse community of college and university students to participate in space-based hands-on projects, courses and outreach activities. This bill will miss the mark if it does not appeal to these students.

In addition, it is imperative to reach students long before they get to college. The foundation to succeed at the collegiate level is established as early as the elementary school level and is continuing into the secondary level.

It is noteworthy that the United States is the only industrialized nation whose high school graduation rates are falling.

Furthermore, our nation is facing a major science and math challenge in elementary, secondary and higher education. The United States has fallen from third in the world to 15th in producing scientists and engineers.

The problem is compounded because many of the graduating scientists and engineers are internationals who return to work in their home countries. Couple this with the huge number of Defense Department lab scientists nearing retirement age and the Defense Department’s civilian labor pool not being replenished with new American scientists, and it should be apparent that this bill must reach and inspire a huge numbers of students.

As a country, we cannot wait for the brain drain to actually occur and then react. If we act now to devise strategies to address future demands proactively, we still maintain our competitive edge.

R eaching students at an early age, creating the motivation to tackle the challenging science, technology, engineering and math regimen of study, and persevering to its completion are vital steps. If this act included scholarship and/or mentorship opportunities designed to ensure high schoolers academic success in STEM curricula, it could produce a pipeline of intellectual capacity in qualified future workers and innovators. Offering internships can excite young people and lead to jobs for budding talent.

It is painfully clear it is time for a new National Defense Education Act, with the same magnitude of the one passed nearly 50 years ago. If the SMART bill can be expanded to encompass a broader scope and is funded to the level of the challenge, it will have a good chance of ensuring we meet future work-force needs required for the United States to remain globally competitive.

Jay DeFrank, Ph.D., is the Space Foundation’s executive director for research & analysis and vice president of Washington Operations. Patricia J. Arnold, Ph.D., is the foundation’s vice president for education & work force development.