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Breaking the Science Barrier

Breaking the Science Barrier

As we cross the threshold of a new millennium, the extraordinary global economic expansion, driven primarily by American technological innovation, is a dazzling affirmation of our nation’s preeminence. Advances still unfolding in America’s research laboratories — from quantum computing and “moletronics” to synthetic genes and evolutionary algorithms — portend a mastery over the biosphere heretofore unimaginable, with far reaching implications for our economy and standard of living.
Nowhere is the expansion more evident than in electronic commerce. Traffic on the Internet is doubling every three months. Total e-commerce revenues, essentially zero just six years ago, reached $300 billion last year and are expected to exceed $500 billion this year. Annual Internet revenues already exceed revenues for the airline industry and the telecommunications sector. Internet-related employment increased from 1.6 million to 2.3 million from the first quarter of 1998 to the first quarter of 1999, a 78 percent gain.
As the Internet expands with no end in sight, new frontiers are opening in virtually every scientific arena. There is fundamental new science to be discovered as we move our laboratories into the microgravity environment of the recently launched International Space Station. The marriage of biology and engineering has already produced living tissue organs in the laboratory. We have successfully interconnected microprocessors with the human neurological system. We routinely construct semiconductors with precisely defined properties, one atomic layer at a time. Space-based telescopes have provided a new window on the universe. And computer simulations are giving us new insights into complex nonlinear phenomena.
In the not too distant future we will establish manufacturing facilities in space, construct trains levitated by superconducting magnets and build nanomechanical systems — microscopic robots — that traverse the circulatory system performing diagnostics and delicate surgical procedures inside the human body. According to Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, within 10 years we are likely to produce computers with the memory and processing capability of the human brain. Keyboards will be replaced by real-time speech recognition input devices. Wireless communications will supplant the current hardware infrastructure. The social and economic implications of such advances are quite profound.
Our unequivocal technological primacy today notwithstanding, America’s fate in the 21st century rests on an increasingly fragile foundation. The matter of race in one form or another not only stands tenaciously in the way of achieving the moral imperative of democracy, as it has throughout our history, but it also threatens our world leadership in technology and jeopardizes our future economic competitiveness. In particular, our persistent inability to create an inclusive science and engineering workforce, one that reflects the ethnic makeup of our society, presents a fundamental limit to our otherwise promising growth potential.

Wasting Homegrown Talent
Annual demand for new engineers in the United States exceeds production by more than 100 percent, and with the current growth rate of the technology sector, the end of the upward spiral in demand is nowhere in sight. But enrollment of American students in engineering is 25 percent less than it was 15 years ago when the demographics were significantly different. We’re meeting immediate needs through an unhealthy dependence on imported talent and by permanently exporting selected technical jobs along with their attendant expertise and economic benefits. At the same time, we’re squandering an enormous underutilized talent pool that exists among America’s minority populations. At Silicon Valley companies, the heart of the e-commerce world, African Americans constitute fewer than 4 percent of the professional and management staffs.
African Americans, Latinos and American Indians together constitute 30 percent of the college-age population. Yet only 3 percent of the doctorates and only 10 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering awarded in the U. S. go to members of those groups. Moreover, after two decades of progress, we’re now losing ground. African American freshman enrollment in engineering plummeted 17 percent between 1992 and 1997, a time of rapidly growing demand, and enrollment in doctoral programs is declining even more precipitously.
Compounding the problem, well-organized political initiatives and legal maneuvers across the country are dismantling affirmative action and other policies that have played a substantial role in creating equal opportunity. The political environment notwithstanding, the persistent underrepresentation of African Americans and other minorities in science and engineering is simply a problem that must be solved and, considering multi-generational effects, it must be solved quicky. America cannot emerge in the 21st century as a world leader economically, socially or politically while leaving a third of our population outside of the profession that is critical to our technological infrastructure, essential to our continued economic growth and fundamental to the evolution of modern life.
In the Black community, as we battle against educational inequities, biases in standardized testing and discrimination in the work place, in the end, the responsibility for preparing our children for the future and for penetrating the inner sanctums of the scientific enterprise, belongs to us. We must develop a comprehensive understanding of the obstacles that our young people face, whether they’re the psychological inhibitions identified by Claude Steele or the tangible obstacles associated with inferior curricula, crumbling facilities and unqualified teachers. We must then take effective action to overcome those obstacles and prepare our children to compete with their peers, on any stage under any set of rules. When the National Collegiate Athletic Association temporarily banned the dunk shot, largely in response to Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s inexorable prowess around the hoop, he went to the sky hook and won three championships anyway.

A Tradition to Uphold
We must remind our children, as we approach the historic millennium milestone, that people of African descent are not new to the business of scientific inquiry, and, from the beginning of recorded history, have made important contributions to the evolution of scientific thought and technological development – from the Namoratunga astronomical site, built in Kenya about 300 B.C., to successful Caesarean sections in the 19th century, documented by European missionaries. Though African Americans have largely been excluded from the scientific enterprise in this country, there have been notable exceptions. In the 20th century, George Washington Carver, Ernest Just, Charles Drew, J. Ernest Wilkins, and W. Lincoln Hawkins are but a few of the giants who made major, breakthrough contributions to agricultural science, chemistry, medicine, mathematics, nuclear physics and engineering.
We must build on the strength of our forefathers and seize control of our own destiny. We must examine our current community values, set high expectations for our children independently, make the relentless pursuit of academic excellence a priority and demand hard work and success whatever the barriers. We must recognize that overcoming obstacles can be a source of great strength. Paraphrasing Jesse Jackson, we must convert stumbling blocks to stepping stones. We must also use our own resources to close the Digital Divide. Any parents who can afford a television set can afford a computer for their children.
The consequences of nonparticipation in the scientific enterprise today are far more severe than they were in times past. The economic gap between players and observers is ever widening and rapidly becoming insurmountable. We cannot assume our rightful places as citizens in the new millennium if we remain largely outside the boundaries of science and technology.    

— Campbell is president of the National Action Council for Minorities in  Engineering

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