In the post 9/11 world, the Iraq War and threats to homeland security have dominated Washington’s national security debate. Fears of terrorist attacks and weapons of mass destruction riveted the attention of policy makers. But now come signs that America’s political leaders are finally turning their attention to a chronic national security concern—the failure of the US to remain competitive in math, science and engineering.
Fearful that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in science and technology and anxious that each year China and India produce twice as many technical graduates as the U.S., lawmakers in Washington are seeking ways to motivate U.S. students to pursue careers in math, science and engineering by introducing legislation that would make it easier for them to pay back their college loans.
Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), and Congressman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), introduced The Math and Science Incentive Act of 2005, which was sent to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in April. Senator John Warner (R-VA), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Senate version. The bill will establish a new Department of Education program to pay for up to $10,000 of interest on college loans if a student promises to work for five years in the fields of math, science or engineering or teach in one of those fields upon graduation.
Beltway insiders are shaping the debate by linking the need for more math and science graduates to the need for maintaining U.S. global influence. “Without a doubt, our ability to remain ahead of the curve in scientific and technological advancements is a key component to ensuring America’s national, homeland, and economic security in the post 9/11 world of global terrorism,” said Senator Warner at the time he introduced the legislation, which was sent to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Warner stressed that Americans could not “run the risk of having to outsource the security needs of this country” because of a lack of qualified U.S. citizens in math and science.
Similarly, at a press conference launching the legislation, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) noted that the Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security, on which he served during the Clinton Administration, concluded that the failure to remain competitive in math and science constituted one of the greatest threats to America’s security.
The new legislation does not address the disproportionate lack of women’s participation in math and science; however, public statements by its sponsors indicate their sensitivity to the need to expand equity in technical fields. At the press conference announcing the bill, Congressman Ehlers emphasized that “we must encourage young women to pursue degrees in math and science.” He cited disturbing figures from the National Center for Education Statistics* which indicate a widening gender gap. Ehlers noted further that while gains for women have been made in biological and physical sciences, women are still underrepresented in computer science and engineering.
(* Women have earned more than half of all bachelor’s degrees every year since 1982, but still only account for fewer than 28 percent of computer science and engineering degrees.)
The Honorable Paula Stern is Chairwoman of The Stern Group, Inc. a Washington, D.C.-based economic analysis and international advisory firm specializing in business and government strategy.