Elementary students get less time for science than they did 20 years ago, and the average science literacy score of 15-year-olds remains stuck in the middle of the pack for developed countries.
Changing that will take a concerted push to renew the status of science in American culture and education. A new proposal in Congress is on the right track.
In May, Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Lamar Smith, R-Texas, introduced a bill establishing as many as three U.S. science laureates. The laureates would be recommended by the National Academy of Sciences and appointed by the president, and act as ambassadors for their profession traveling the country talking about the importance of science and encouraging students to follow in their footsteps.
The imperative to remind Americans why science matters is partly practical: The U.S. produces too few graduates in science, engineering and related fields, so persuading more young people to choose those areas is important for the economy. Future scientists are the ultimate job creators.
U.S. voters also need public figures who can translate policy debates about science, on everything from childhood vaccines and genetically modified food to stem-cell research, evolution and, yes, climate change.
They deserve public figures who understand the implications of federal research cuts. After all, the public ultimately funds most of that research, and it also pays the price through innovations not created and cures not found when that funding is reduced.
At the same time, science is not and should not be only about economics or policy. It also endeavors to answer the great questions of our time. How did the universe begin, and how will it change? What is it made of, and are we alone in it? Can we map the brain, or return sight to the blind? How can robots improve our lives? Science is the stuff of wonder, and science laureates can help share that excitement.
There's reason to believe Congress will embrace this idea. It requires no new spending (the National Academy of Sciences would support the laureates' administrative needs). As chairman of the House Science Committee, Smith is in a good position to push the bill forward, and it has bipartisan support in the Senate.
That doesn't mean there aren't hurdles.
Last month, the House leadership canceled a vote on the science laureates after the American Conservative Union warned that President Barack Obama would appoint people who "share his view that science should serve political ends, on such issues as climate change and regulation of greenhouse gases." Smith says he plans to mark up the bill in committee this fall, then give the House another chance to vote on it.
The ACU's objection only underlines the importance of the legislation, by demonstrating the degree to which the climate change debate has politicized science policy.
Science laureates are a good way to help fix that reminding the U.S. about the possibilities and wonder of science, and pushing to make sure more U.S. kids want to practice it.