Afternoon Inquisition 11.3

Election theme!

If you were suddenly elected President of the United States, how would you improve science education and research?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of…”

    What you commit yourselves to is up to you, but just pull yourselves together as a nation again.

  2. Obviously this isn’t part of the executive, but if I were King of the US, cut 90% of the military budget, end corporate welfare & entitlement programs, then put *some* of that back into the NSF/CDC/NIH/etc.

  3. See, in my mind this becomes a matter of “when I am king, you will be first against the wall.” The only question is that of WHO is first :-P

  4. I would want to pour money into it. I would try to use the bully pulpit to equate a quality education with pattriotism. I would make it priority to show how investments in these areas equaled jobs and a high standard of living and an increased national security. I would steal every idea that worked to make the military popular and use them to increase the popularity of science and research. I think a lot of it goes back to money. Money is a way of showing what we think is important.

  5. Well for starters I’d actually talk about science education, get some photo-ops in high school and college labs and so on.

  6. I would choose Al Gore as my Vice President, and then resign immediately upon taking the oath of office.

  7. I would make Steven Novella in charge of the US medical structure. And maybe get Randi as my running-man.

    And of course you can have a place Rebecca, what would you like to chair?

  8. Not that the President could do anything about it. But in the similar “King of the Country” idea as above.

    I would abolish the union blocks to testing teachers, students, and schools. I would enforce a national science standard for all science teachers, and a lesser standard required of all students for their diplomas (same for the GED and state testing requirements for home schooled children) which would include scientific method, rules of evidence, critical thinking and evolution. No student will get a diploma just for attending. If they can’t pass, they can go to a trade school and become a laborer (“…that’s what you get for not having an education” –Prof. Jerry Hathaway)

    I would dump tons of money into education at the K-12 level…especially on luring people with real degrees into the teaching environment. Why teach science, when you can do science for twice the pay and half the aggravation? Hold students accountable.

    To make sure no one is left behind, this education is only required for higher education and professional work. A different degree can be offered to get you into a trade school for other work (i.e. auto mechanic, welder etc.) which are vital, honorable jobs…but don’t require the education.

  9. Every school would be required to have a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) team. FIRST is a non-profit that organizes competitive robotics events for students in first grade through high school. The varsity event – FIRST Robotics Competition, is for high school students. They build computer / human controlled robots weighing up to 120 pounds.
    Check out:
    for more info.

  10. Significant monetary incentives for *qualified* science teachers in primary education.

    Appoint a presidential commission, composed of actual scientists, to review areas of basic research to determine relative need of funding.

    Stop wasting money on ballistic missile defense systems that don’t work, and redirect the funding to research and education.

  11. Goodbye, faith-based initiatives.
    No funding for any school that teaches creationism. (Don’t know if that’s a problem now, but just in case …)
    Basically, withdraw any support for the forces of willful ignorance of science.
    More funding for research.
    More funding for training people to be science teachers.

  12. At the least how about we stop cutting its funding? Make it easier for grants for pure research instead of just applied science (again, funding). Scholarships for students going into science, math, and engineering. Make stem cell research to be legal throughout the nation. Get rid of NCLB, teaching tests is not the way to do science. Not to mention that I think lack of appreciation for science is at least partially due to lack of education and critical thinking skills.

    You know what, let’s just throw money at it ;)

  13. Reform TAM into TASEC (or The Amazing Science Education Convention) and get all the brain boxes to sort it out! :D

    Out of curiosity, I’m guessing most liberally minded skeptics here will be voting democrat tomorrow… I wonder if any number of skeptics vote republican?

  14. By appointing scientists to guide science education instead of lawyers. I also think it would be a grand idea to promote sciences within high schools better. In the UK, there is a problem in attracting students to enroll in science degrees generally and a problem with physics funding specifically

    I can’t think of a better way to explain it so i’ll put it simply. Make science sexier……ok fine, more appealing. Then lots of young people will take it up and within the space of 10 years I will have my dream of owning a teleportation device, getting rid of my diabetes and finally gorging myself on chocolate till I throw up.

    Throwing money at science is a great idea (obviously), but it needs to be done intelligently. Scientists are the people best qualified to decide who gets this money. Not lawyers and people who are wholly politically motivated.

  15. RE: #18: “guessing most liberally minded skeptics here will be voting d[D]emocrat tomorrow… I wonder if any number of skeptics vote republican?”

    The Conservative & Pragmatic Skeptics & Atheists will likely vote Republican. That includes folks who’ve been around a long time AND who’ve paid attention to & remember their history…that is, long enough to understand how a variety of economic institutions are actually entangled, how various economic policies actually work, or don’t, based on prior attempts, how some have NEVER worked ANYWHERE for a sustained period (e.g. Marxism, socialism, which are fundamentally no different than Obama’s “spread the wealth” philosophy, etc.).

    That includes those that recall Clinton’s deregulation of financial markets, including F. Mae & F. Mac, the subsequent Democrat obstruction of legislation that would have imposed some government oversights & controls (legislation endorsed primarily by Republicans but voted down by a Democratic majority) that would have prevented the current financial housing mess from occuring, etc. This is one area that is unusually clear & attributable–the Democrats almost singlehandedly, by inaction & self-inflicted neglect, allowed the housing debacle & meltdown of Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac and set the current recession into motion. Of course, to appreciate that one needs to understand a fair amount about economics, finance, and foreign currency markets.

    In Obama’s specific case, people that can’t fathom how someone could participate in a racist church for nearly two decades & be friends with an extremist/racist preacher could, when confronted, believe his assertions that he didn’t really subscribed to those values…yeah right (and recall Oprah — she joined & just as quickly quit for this same reason…so its not like this wasn’t apparent).

    Put another way, would you believe any of your friends & acquaintences if, one day after knowing them for decades, they suddenly claimed to be a compeletely different person holding completely different values… and the fact that that change seemed to coincide with some self-serving opportunistic goal was just irrelevant? Or, say you found out your would-be significant other/fiancee’ had been & was a two-timing, philandering narcissistic heartbreaker, right up until you found out yesterday…would you still trust them & agree to marry them just because they looked you in the eye & said some feel-good blather, or, would you harbor serious doubts about their integrity & ability to commit?

    As the sayings go, “Birds of a Feather Flock Together,” “Leopards do not change their spots,” and then there’s one about a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

    In other words, those that can actually see beyond the feel-good rhetoric, who can cross reference a lot of information, including more history than most of the readers on this site have had a chance to hear of, much less study, and who do not qualify as one of P.T. Barnum’s suckers (born every minute) will likely vote Republican.

  16. I don’t have a lot of high fallutin ideas about this. But one thing I do feel passionately about: obliterate the US Department of Education.

  17. Al Gore as President would not necessarily be good for science (well, better than Bush certaintly… or having Palin bumbling her way anywhere near the white house).

    I believe we should try to move past the politicalization of science.

  18. @Detroitus: No, actually I mean ‘obliterate’ as in stop funding it.

    If you’re a big fan of the US Department of Ed then I assume you must really like GWB who increased it’s budget by something obscene like 65%. The largest increase ever, unless you count Carter who created the Dept of Ed.

    If you’re wondering why that money didn’t translate to improved schools it’s because the Dept of Ed isn’t an educational institution per se. It’s not, as reasonable people assume, an organization of teachers and schools, but rather beaurocrats and lawyers. That’s what we’re funding.

  19. @drockwood: I’m all for a complete reform of the Dept of Education. Ahat I inferred from your comment, however, was a hint at doing away with federally funded public education. This I do not support.

    But yes, there are definitely changes that need to be made. And naturally, the billions of dollars we throw at it would have to be under the condition that these changes take place.


  20. @Detroitus:

    what reform? the department only exists to impose federal regulation on the schools which is
    a) completely unnecessary because the communities that fund their schools are perfectly capable of overseeing their performance

    b) it’s ungoddly expensive.

    There’s nothing to reform. If schools do get federally funding (i don’t think they do) it has nothing to do with the US Dept of Ed.
    We should simply stop funding the dept and the tax dollars should be redirected to the local/state level.

  21. @drokwood

    Normally, I’m a big anti-fed type of guy. However, there has to be some national governance of science education. It’s unfair to the smart children of Alabama if their local government gets to decide what gets passed as “science standards”. I mean, we all mocked Kansas for their latest decision…if minimum standards get set at the local level, you end up balancing to the LCD.

    Plus, a high school diploma should mean the same thing no matter what community you move to.

    Class size, number of teachers, and other decisions of that nature should be local, but there should be a national standard of a minimum quality of education.

  22. Early Child education and reading programs.
    That’s the key to everything that comes later.

    And one very important thing the Dept. of Ed does is fund RESEARCH on how people learn, and what makes it better!

    Don’t confuse No Child Left Behind–a *legislative* mandate–with the Dept. of Ed. They got handed a turd, and had to try to make it work.

  23. @ “And one very important thing the Dept. of Ed does is fund RESEARCH on how people learn, and what makes it better!”

    uh… that’s a point you’re making in their defense?

    We don’t need studies into why our schools are failing. Our schools are failing because we waste 70 bil a year on the Dept of Ed and their research.

  24. ^^^ that came out more antagonistic than I meant it too. But my point is that I support funding education over studies over why education is failing.

    Even if I concede the point that it’s our education failure is a big mystery I still don’t think we need studies. We should increase spending on the state / local level and let them institute they think are appropriate. The successful ideas will propagate.
    This bottom up administration is far more efficient than federal gov solutions.

  25. @Detroitus:

    I agree, it wasn’t very articulate of me. That’s why I appended it with my post above which hopefully addresses your criticism.

  26. @bug_girl:

    One more point about this. If you agree that NCLB is bad (it’s clearly awful. Thanks bi-partisan support. god I hate the dems) then it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to agree that funding for Dept of Ed should be cut by 70%, the increase of NCLB.

  27. @drockwood: I agree with you that more funding needs to go to state/local levels, but where I disagree is that I don’t think that those local levels should have sole discretion over what the standards are.

    Like Calinthalus said, a high school diploma in this country should mean the same thing no matter what state you got it it. It’s certainly not to that point now, but therein lies the needs for reform I mentioned earlier. Sure, reducing the beaurocratic bullshit that goes on is a great idea, but there still needs to be consistent, nationwide, federally-enforced standards for public education.

    I just think that these standards should be determined by educators and not politicians.

  28. @bug_girl: Early Child education and reading programs.

    this is where we agree. And while its concievable that funding for this could come from the Fed I still don’t think we need 70 billion dollars and 5000 employees to do that.

    I still think the best solution is to cut taxes for fed overseeing of education. Then state/local can increase their education taxation and implement the solutions they think are best.
    I don’t think the fed belongs in education because a) it adds unnecessary beaurocratic expense which are obscenely large and b) gov funding always equals gov regulation. Schools should be accountable for their communities not the gov.

  29. Nominate Rebecca as Secretary of Awesomeness.

    I would make sure that the increased funding (many billions) for science education would REQUIRE compliance with Federal science education standards. The last thing you want to do is put money in the hands of creationist goobers in Texas.

    Or Kansas.

    Or Some parts of Pennsylvania.

  30. Eight hundred million billion kajillion bazillion dollar bailout. Then those poor teachers will finally make money on par with myself.

    Kapten Kalabajooie for President!

  31. @Kev:
    Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?
    Also, Obama is most definitely not a Socialist. Too bad considering the nations with the highest standards of living are Socialist (Norway, Sweden, hell Canada is more Socialist than the Democrats). Does anybody here really think that McCain/Palin are going to improve science? Especially when McCain rants about bear DNA and a planetarium projector and Palin’s support of creationism and ridicule of fruit flies.

  32. I approve this message.

    To be the #1 nation in science, we must invest in scientific research more than all other nations. We must invest in science education more than all other nations. Easy to measure. Easy to monitor.

    As your president, I expect you to hold me accountable to making this happen.

  33. There’s an interesting theme to many of the comments here, seemingly taking as a given that more money from the Federal treasury will result in improved education and research. What’s the basis for this conclusion? Is there good data that shows this connection exists?

    I am a Hedge

  34. @Im a Hedge. Nice job. 49 comments before someone started apply basic critical thinking skills.

    As critical thinkers and/or skeptics, I reiterate the question: What facts could lead us to conclude a government can efficiently and effectively improve science education?

    Perhaps that’s a question for another day…

  35. @ “The last thing you want to do is put money in the hands of creationist goobers in Texas.”

    Obviously a major concern here is that without costly gov regulation redneck states will start teaching ID and astrology and holocaust denial in the science classroom.
    I don’t think this is without any basis (well, not the holocaust thing) but most of those creationist measures fail in their districts. Despite what the polls show voters don’t trust religious fundementalists when it comes to science.
    The way to fight creationism/ superstition is through grassroots efforts not government regulation.
    Also, I hate to use the term “elitism” but something about this argument reminds me of Sarah Palin style regional/class warfare.

  36. Personally If had control of the country I would make the majority of the population fear science and only a few elite would be able to practice it. I would also remove all ethical standards for funding allowing for a new generation of Evil Mad Scientists.

  37. @TomDG: We’ve already got that first bit. The Evil Mad Scientists thing sounds good, so long as the Evil Mad Pseudoscientists are thoroughly and enthusiastically repressed.

  38. I thought this would be obvious:

    Tax all church incomes. Give it to science research & education.

    The end.

  39. If I were elected president I would develop more performance tests to prove who deserves a slice of the ever shrinking funding pie. The cost of these tests will be taken out of the budgets they help distribute.

    Every time a stem cell cures a disease, god kills a kitten. Please, think of the kittens.

  40. I think funding should be applied at the tertiary level to provide for new science teachers. Maybe student loan write offs for science grads who minor in education and agree to work in a public school for X years, something like that so you’re not just throwing money at the problem, you’re also throwing people … cause people have more momentum. Also more funding for science research to encourage people to go into science as a career.

    I remember hearing about some promising sounding advances on the SGU podcast a while back. There was improved solar cells, using a different manufacturing technique, i think carbon nano-tube batteries with 10X the lifespan of standard ones, and a catalytic photosynthesis based process for generating H2. I think its pretty clear that moving away from a gas based economy, to a more eco-friendly one would be both sensible and popular (except with oil companies/nations) and getting a decent green alternative available to the public might help to spur re-newed interest in science. I will admit that its been a few months since I listened to the SGU so some of those advances may have not been as promising as they first seemed.

    I also think significant “support” for science education at a young age (K-6 at least) should be provided. I’m not sure exactly what the support should be, as mully pointed out just throwing money at a problem doesn’t always fix it, perhaps Universities would only receive additional funding if they had active community outreach programs? I’m not sure, I imagine there is no one single solution, rather a number of options that will have varying degrees of success.

    I know I seem to have neglected the 6-12 grade age groups but it maybe that the damage has already been done, and significant numbers of them will have little to no interest in science.

  41. The best thing that the President could do is use the power of the office (primarily the Veto) to get the Federal government out of the way. As President, I would veto bills that would interfere with the free pursuit of scientific research or scientific education.

    I think if I were President, my veto pen would get quite a workout.

    I am a Hedge

  42. Someone at TED suggested we “fix” bad school lunches by a fund that pays off all your (culinary) education loans if you cook school lunches for four years while teaching the usual school cooks how to do better.

    I’d do that; and also introduce the same for scientists: pay off their loans (entirely) if they teach at a school for four years. …Including teaching the other teachers.

  43. @Im a Hedge: Hmmn. I’m not a believer in over-use of Veto power by the president; I believe this is something Bush absolutely abused.

    That said, I /would/ support its use to remove pork-barreling. But that’s different.

  44. @JRice:How did Bush abuse the veto power? He vetoed less bills than any 8 year president in history. If anything, he didn’t veto enough.

  45. @JRice:
    I’m also not a believer in over-use. I suspect where we would disagree on what constitutes over-use and what constitutes appropriate use.

    I think Bush (along with most, if not all, other Presidents) severely under-used the veto. It’s a legitimate power of the President to maintain some limits on the Congress. The Congress has abdicated far too much of its power to the Executive (e.g. granting the President the de facto power to declare war), and the Executive has failed to exercise proper restraint on the Congress. This results in erosion of the separation of powers, which is intended to keep the State, as a whole, in check.

    (Please note, I have used latin again, thus ensuring that my view is correct)

    I am a Hedge

  46. It’s the power of latin, my man. And you didn’t believe your teacher when she said you would need latin in the real world.

    I am a Hedge

  47. back to the topic of research, which was roundly dismissed by drockwood–how do I know that early childhood education is key to what comes later?
    How do we know that abstinence education is BS? Research.
    You say that what we are doing now is not working–but which of the many thousands of variables are responsible?
    Without research to pick apart all the variation between the many systems, we can’t say what works and what doesn’t.

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