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New Coalition Aims to Increase Number of Math, Engineering Grads

A coalition of business groups is hoping geeks rule the school in the next decade. To help make that happen, the new group launched a lobbying campaign late last week to press lawmakers for more federal dough for math and science education programs.

The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Coalition kicked off its campaign Friday at the National Academy of Sciences. It has set a national goal of producing 400,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics university graduates by 2020 — double today’s yield. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Advanced Medical Technology Association and a long list of technology-reliant industry groups are behind the effort.

Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, predicted

dire consequences for the United States if lawmakers fail to create programs and offer incentives for students to pursue scientific careers.

“I fear that our nation for some decades now has basically given up on providing world-class education to its primary and secondary schools, and now it’s tearing into the core of our great public system of higher education. This is unacceptable. Period,” Vest said. “The time has come to slay the dragon of complacency and to regain our national will to excel. There is little slack left. Other nations are not biding their time, and I’m worried.”

The event, hosted by bespectacled former CNN science correspondent Miles O’Brien, also included retiring Reps. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Science and Technology Committee. In his remarks, O’Brien, who now hosts the Web show “This Week in Space,” also warned the audience that “the work force is in trouble.”

Gordon framed his argument in economic terms, saying that young people today “could very well inherit a national standard of living that is less than their parents, if we do not take action.”

“I want to have a call to arms,” the 13-term lawmaker added. “We ought to increase our research and development so we can handle it. It’s time to stop all the meetings, time to stop all of the study groups. We know what to do.”

As spring showers hung over Washington, D.C., on Friday morning, the retiring Volunteer State lawmaker also pledged that his committee will take up related legislation in April, but he declined to give any forecast about its prospects in the harsh partisan climate.

“There’s a bit of a cloud over Washington, and it’s not just this morning, there’s a partisan cloud that makes everything difficult to do,” Gordon told the audience. “Go back to your associations, classes, organizations, your companies and send us a letter endorsing the America COMPETES Act.”

In his remarks, Ehlers, a former research physicist, noted that “it’s all about the kids.”

With the coalition’s campaign now teed up, organizer Rick Stephens said one of his group’s challenges will be making reporters, students and their parents believe that tech-centric occupations are not just for the pocket-protector stereotypes of yesteryear.

“We need to help the American people recognize how critically important it is to our economy,” Stephens said. “Influencing and impacting the media is very important to what the STEM coalition is all about.”

With so many groups to herd, he told the audience that another of the coalition’s priorities is “aligning our interests.” The membership includes not only the chamber and AdvaMed, but also the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the American Chemistry Council. Stephens did not disclose the coalition’s budget.

“We are intent on finding out what programs work … bringing those to the table and sharing those with the rest of the coalition members,” he said.

And as an indication of President Barack Obama’s support for federal programs promoting science and mathematics, the administration’s science envoy Tom Kalil was on hand for the campaign’s kickoff event on Friday, telling those in the auditorium that this is a “priority for President Obama” and “you have an open door.”

“This is really going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach,” he said.

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