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President Perry and the Future of Science, Pt. 1

Photonics.com
Sep 2011
Sep. 21, 2011 — Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been watching the Republican race with a curious mix of amusement and dread. Especially with regard to science. With the exception of Jon Huntsman – whose tweet, “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy,” provided one of my favorite moments of the campaign so far – and possibly of Mitt Romney, the major candidates have, almost to a one, come out against it.

No doubt you’ve heard and read it all by now. Rick Perry dismissing evolution as “just a theory” and, with respect to climate change research, spinning an elaborate, entirely unfounded tale of intrigue and academic misconduct, with a worldwide cabal of investigators perpetuating a lie to keep those grant dollars rolling in. Michelle Bachmann repeating the debunked “manufactured science” claims and seemingly just making **** up about the potential side effects of vaccinations. Even Ron Paul – oh, Ron Paul – denying evolution.

I got to wondering while watching the politicians trip over one another to establish their anti-science bona fides: What would happen if we were to elect one of these candidates as president? Specifically, how would this affect science education in the US – in terms of, for example, curricula in public schools and funding for outreach programs? Or maybe it would have no appreciable impact?

To get some perspective, I decided to call Neal Gallagher. I first heard Dr. Gallagher speak at a meeting in San Diego, and later interviewed him for an Education Wavefront column in Photonics Spectra magazine. A retired professor and dean of engineering, he had developed a series of experiments in areas such as quantum mechanics — areas that weren’t getting covered in his young children’s schools — and gone into the schools to present them. From my previous experiences, I knew he had well-reasoned and clearly defined opinions about what and how we are teaching our kids.

As I was developing my questions, though, and especially later when I was talking to Dr. Gallagher, I realized that I wasn’t worrying over the future of science education so much as its current state, that I wasn’t concerned with the impact of this particular field of candidates so much as the conditions that gave rise to it. What I really wanted to know was: How did we get to this point, and how do we move past it? Or can we move past it?

Dr. Gallagher had a few thoughts about this. I’ll discuss these in my next post.


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