Placing young scientists at the front lines with the American public and honoring the legacy of Dr. Richard Feynman
This week PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases published a lead editorial by A. Desiree LeBeaud and Hannah McKeating lamenting America’s international scientific standing and calling for a major change in current funding policies and public perspectives. In a similar vein, my Baker Institute colleague Neal Lane (former NSF Director and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Clinton White House) and I have highlighted a decade of flat-line science funding and cited data indicating an imminent loss in American global science supremacy. Based on surveys conducted by ResearchAmerica! that most Americans cannot name a living scientist we linked downturns in US science partly to massive gaps in advocacy. We called on universities to produce a cadre of scientist-advocates or civic-scientists who can galvanize the United States population and Congress in order to expand public spending on scientific research in America.
Increasingly it looks as though we are at risk of creating a lost generation of young scientists who might not find meaningful employment in their chosen field. We may also soon fall behind countries such as China, Germany, and Singapore, which are aggressively investing in science and scientific infrastructure.
The problem: As we enter this potentially new dark age of science in America we need to find a way to continue inspiring our nation’s young people to develop a love or appreciation for science, while simultaneously engaging the US public in a dialogue to urgently expand federal and private support for scientific research.
There is no quick fix to this problem but inspired by the life and work of the great American physicist Richard Feynman (b.1918 – d.1988) a partial solution might proceed along the following path:
Dr. Feynman, who won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for his theories in quantum electrondynamics, was also a committed teacher and science advocate. The Feynman Lectures on Physics initially written for his CalTech undergraduates sold more than one million copies, and Dr. Feynman himself was known for turning down attempts to be recruited to the Institute for Advanced Study so that he might continue to take inspiration from teaching. Later, he also became an important public face for science during a televised hearing investigating the Challenger disaster when he gave a graphic demonstration on how O-rings fail in cold weather.
I would like to see the establishment of an innovative Feynman US Postdoctoral Fellowship in Science Education and Advocacy. Following an intensive year-long period of training in secondary school education and classroom teaching, these newly minted science PhDs would be placed in high schools across the nation. There they would be simultaneously mentored by established high school teachers and a senior scientist based in US government laboratories, state or private universities, or possibly industry. In parallel Feynman US Postdoctoral Fellows would be encouraged to engage the public through advertised lectures, and writing for the local and national press. The fellowship would last for three years after which time they would be employed by high schools where they would also continue their advocacy activities.
In all, 500-1,000 Feynman US Postdoctoral Fellows would be trained annually, representing approximately 1-2 percent of the roughly 40,000 Americans awarded science and engineering PhDs every year. In time, a significant number of the 25,000 public secondary schools in the US would be populated with at least one Feynman US Postdoctoral Fellow or graduate.
The costs would be modest. Currently a postdoctoral fellow at the NIH rate is paid approximately $40,000 annually. Therefore with benefits it would cost about $25-50 million to provide stipends for 500-1,000 fellows, and $75-150 million over the three year period. If one doubles that number to account for training costs, overhead costs for the secondary schools, and added travel and educational expenses, then the entire Feynman US Postdoctoral Program could cost about $150-300 million annually. For perspective, this amount is equivalent to the cost of a handful of F-16 fighter jets, or a modest percentage of the $1.3 billion the US provides the Egyptian military annually.
Applicants to the Feynman US Postdoctoral Fellowship program would be carefully screened and interviewed. The idea would be to establish a prestigious and meaningful program that would help to enlist future generations of scientists while also creating an advocacy base for the American public to accept science as a vital element of our national security and economic productivity. Although some education fellowships for PhDs are in place, they are not nearly of the breadth and scope of what is being proposed here. Ultimately, having a group of young scientists on the front lines with the American public might help to reverse some truly threatening workforce and national scientific and social trends.