Why Are American Kids Behind in Science?

Bassler explains the governmental, social, and cultural factors which turn children off to science.
  • Transcript


Question: Why are American kids behind in science?

Bonnie Bassler: A personal view, so I think that 100 years ago or so, science was the domain of the hair professor, the sort of white male, old man that had all this prestige because he understood this thing that regular people could not understand, science. So there was this, it was not systematic, you know, this sort of feedback loop that was purposely started, that I am doing this rarified thing, right, you, the normal person, cannot get, you have to be Albert Einstein, you have to be whoever, and that mere mortals cannot cope in this world. And that has become, made it so that people are afraid of science, they think it is too hard, and then they also have this stereotype of this old guy, like why would I want to be like that? These guys were never athletes, right. And so I think that there is this stereotype of these boring asocial drones, that is who becomes a scientist, I can't tell you how many times I've gone to a dinner party and these are learned people, or anyone, where they say, "What do you do?" And I say, "Oh, I'm a geneticist" and the hand comes up and they say, "oh, in fourth grade, my teacher, and I couldn't learn science," blah-blah-blah, and I could not learn science from them on. If I were to say, oh, the Renaissance, oh, I never got the Renaissance, or oh, French literature, or, oh, businessman, uh, like I would be considered a moron, like why is it okay for our country or anyone to say I cannot do science? I mean science is what gives us the life we have right now. And it does not have to be biology, just think about computer science, I mean, those people are certainly text messaging, so they can do science. And I have to say, this is not particular to me, this is every scientist's nightmare dinner party, and we go to a lot of these. And it is so odd because it would be unthinkable for me to say, I just did not want to learn to read. Right?

Question: Are there any science heroes?

Transcript:Come on, how many heroes do you know in science? I mean, if an athlete were to walk down the street, you would instantly recognize him. My colleague, Eric Wieschaus, has a Nobel Prize and people in Princeton do not even know who he is. So I think that we don’t have heroes. And that is new, because in the 1950’s and earlier, Einstein was a hero; Salk was a hero; Fleming; those were heroes, and somehow culture has changed that it is not cool and heroic to do science. I think that is kind of a pity, right, and I don’t think it is just movies, I think it is a much bigger thing, it is what we have been talking about, that our entire country is turned off from science at a really early age for both religious and political and educational reasons, right? And then there is no way to grapple with that in popular-- the people who are going to watch the show are already self selected your show. To be able to say maybe I could learn something about science, right, and other families, they’re not going to watch this.

Recorded on: 6/17/08