Our "Quiet Crisis" in Science and Technology

Question: You have said that there is a "quiet crisis" as \r\nAmerica is falling behind in science and technology. Why?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Over the last 20 years or more, the \r\nactual growth in technology- and science-linked jobs has been about 4.2 \r\npercent per year.  The actual availability of U.S.-born workers in those\r\n fields has grown at about 1.5 percent per year.  And then when you look\r\n at jobs in new areas, in the nanotechnology arena for instance, people \r\nsay one of the greatest challenges they have is finding a well-qualified\r\n workforce—and that’s at a baseline level; we’re not talking necessarily\r\n people with Masters' and PhDs.  At the higher educational levels, we \r\nreally are not attracting as many young people as we should, \r\nparticularly to not only get first degrees in these fields, but to move \r\non and get graduate degrees. 

Now fortunately for us, we’ve been\r\n able to attract really exquisite talent from abroad and so that’s been \r\nkind of the secret sauce that we’ve always been able to attract talent \r\nfrom abroad.  But you know what?  Other countries, now, they’re \r\nemulating our model.  They are creating massive research infrastructure,\r\n building up their universities.  Creating new enterprises with a lot of\r\n government support.  And they are beginning to attract many of these \r\neducated people in the sciences and engineering back home.  But there’s a\r\n global race for talent, so they’re also being attracted to places that \r\nmay not be back home; but they’re not necessarily countries that are \r\nwhere we would think. And so that means they aren’t necessarily staying \r\nhere. 

So yes, I think there is still a quiet crisis because \r\nit’s a subtle point.  It’s quiet because we sort of don’t know what the \r\nsituation is until its upon us; partly because people quietly retire, \r\nthere are trends that occur, but we don’t see the real underlying trend \r\nfor years.  But also, it takes a long time to create a high-functioning \r\ntheoretical physicist or nuclear engineer.  And so it’s a time factor \r\nthat makes us not see it.

In addition, a lot of the technologies \r\nthat we take for granted and where a lot of the cool things come from; \r\nwhether we’re talking iPods or iPads or Kindles or X-Boxes, really are \r\nbuilt on technologies that were developed 20 and 30 and 40 years ago, \r\nand discoveries that were made that long ago. 

\r\nSo it’s quiet.  It comes and creeps in on us, but it’s a crisis because \r\nit turns out that scientists and engineers only comprise about five \r\npercent of the workforce.  And so by the time we come to grips with the \r\nsituation, the fact that it takes so long to really educate a person; to\r\n really be well-grounded in these arenas, it’s a crisis, because we \r\ncan’t fix it fast at that point.

Have President Obama's policies done anything to improve \r\nthis?

Shirley Ann Jackson: The Obama Administration has a very \r\nstrong commitment to science and engineering; to supporting basic \r\nresearch; to appreciating the role of science and technology and helping\r\n to solve some of our greatest challenges; whether we’re talking energy \r\nsecurity or climate change.  If you witness who the Secretary of Energy \r\nis and the kinds of things he’s been trying to propagate; if you look at\r\n who the new Director of the NIH is, the National Institutes of Health, \r\nand you look at the kind of things that he has done in his career and \r\nwhat he’s trying to do at NIH, there’s a re-centering on the fundamental\r\n role of science and engineering.  But there’s also a lot more support \r\nfor basic research, but more importantly, there’s the leadership from \r\nthe top because the President himself speaks about the importance of \r\nthis.  And in fact, challenges scientists and engineers as well to take \r\nmore of an active role in reaching out and educating and exciting the \r\nyoung people then helping people to understand it.  And he’s doing this \r\nagainst a backdrop, as you know, of a very difficult economic and \r\nbudgetary situation.  But the scientific community is very much more \r\nhopeful, I would say.

In the wake of the recession, how does science education \r\nneed to change?

Shirley Ann Jackson:  Well, there’s a level at which one \r\ncould argue that all industries to be at the leading edge and for us to \r\nbe globally competitive and rebuild our manufacturing and our export \r\nbase have and need a root in the latest breakthroughs in science and \r\nengineering and, having said that, let me go back to the commentary \r\nabout the U.S. auto industry and whether we should write it off. 
\r\nYou know, there’s kind of a story that people probably don’t think about\r\n so much and that is 20 or more years ago, the U.S. was very worried \r\nabout losing its lead and edge in advanced chip... microprocessor design\r\n and manufacturing, at that point, to Japan.  And so with the government\r\n support, a consortium of what are really some fairly large companies, \r\ncame together to lay out a technology road map as to what the industry \r\nneeded to do and where the government could support what the industry \r\nneeded to do to stay ahead of the curve, to sort of catch up as it were,\r\n and then stay ahead of the curve.  And that roadmap essentially has \r\nbeen followed and that’s why we have the great Intels and the other \r\nmajor chip design and manufacturing enterprises still in this country \r\nand where a lot of the manufacturing, not all of it, but a lot of it \r\nstill goes on here.  So I wouldn’t quite write the auto industry off, \r\nalthough there are a lot of structural issues and changes that need to \r\noccur. 

\r\nBut having said that, if one wants to think about the workforce of the \r\nfuture and what kinds of characteristics people need to have: people \r\nhave to be a lot more intellectually agile than they are because things \r\nchange so fast, and markets really are global and innovation is \r\neverywhere, and people, even if they work for one company, are going to \r\nfind that they’re going to be working with counterparts around the globe\r\n and that they’re going to need to at least understand and appreciate \r\nhow to at least ride the wave of new and evolving technologies to \r\noptimize what they do in their own business processes and their own \r\nenterprises, even if those enterprises are not "high tech," so to \r\nspeak.  But at the same time, as I always argue, we need more scientists\r\n than engineers because the way to really be globally pre-eminent is to \r\nbe innovative and stay ahead of the innovation curve.  We still are the \r\nmost innovative country in the world, but where we’ve been lagging is \r\ncontinuing to invest and move ahead in those areas that have kept us \r\nahead from the focus on fundamental research; having the kind of \r\ninfrastructure one needs to help new entrepreneurial start-up companies \r\ncross the various valleys of death; create the kind of workforce that is\r\n minimally scientifically literate and out of which, we hope, will come \r\nmore scientists and engineers.

Recorded May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

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At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.

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