The current issue of The Atlantic has a number of sobering articles on how the United States is, well, struggling with science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, as well as clean energy, especially as it relates to coal.
In “Your Child Left Behind” (which includes an interactive graphic) author Amanda Ripley looks at how various states stack up with other nations using scores on standardized math tests as a proxy for educational achievement:
We’ve known for some time how this story ends nationwide: only 6 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced-proficiency level in math, a share that lags behind kids in some 30 other countries, from the United Kingdom to Taiwan. But what happens when we break down the results? Do any individual U.S. states wind up near the top?
Incredibly, no. Even if we treat each state as its own country, not a single one makes it into the top dozen contenders on the list. The best performer is Massachusetts, ringing in at No. 17. Minnesota also makes it into the upper-middle tier, followed by Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington. And down it goes from there, all the way to Mississippi, whose students—by this measure at least—might as well be attending school in Thailand or Serbia.
At the top of the list: Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Finland. (Here’s an interesting analysis on the implications of related research on PISA scores from the Washington Post.)
Another article in the same issue, Dirty Coal, Clean Future, by James Fallows, examines living with the “nightmare of coal,” as Secretary of Energy Chu has called it:
To environmentalists, “clean coal” is an insulting oxymoron. But for now, the only way to meet the world’s energy needs, and to arrest climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm, is to use coal—dirty, sooty, toxic coal—in more-sustainable ways. The good news is that new technologies are making this possible. China is now the leader in this area, the Google and Intel of the energy world. If we are serious about global warming, America needs to work with China to build a greener future on a foundation of coal. Otherwise, the clean-energy revolution will leave us behind, with grave costs for the world’s climate and our economy.
Fallows describes an American “failure” caused in part by our inability as a nation to “focus public effort on public problems,” which has left the U.S. as a bystander and collaborator on the side to China, which is able to move quickly as they ramp up their industrialization and economy, much of it fueled by electricity from coal, clean or otherwise.
The manifestation of the failure is that China is where the world’s “doing” now goes on, in this industry and many others. If you want to learn how the power plants of the future will work, you must go to Tianjin—or Shanghai, or Chengdu—to find out. Power companies from America, Europe, and Japan are fortunate to have a place to learn. Young engineers and managers and entrepreneurs in China are fortunate that the companies teaching the rest of the world will be Chinese.
The deeper problem is the revealed difference in national capacity, in seriousness and ability to deliver. The Chinese government can decide to transform the country’s energy system in 10 years, and no one doubts that it will. An incoming U.S. administration can promise to create a clean-energy revolution, but only naïfs believe that it will.
“The most impressive aspect of the Chinese performance is their determination to do what is needed,” Julio Friedmann told me. “To be the first, to be the biggest, to have the best export technology for cleaning up coal.” America obviously is not displaying comparable determination—and the saddest aspect of the U.S. performance, he said, is that it seems not deliberate but passive and accidental, the product of modern America’s inability to focus public effort on public problems.
Meanwhile, the public is invited to submit their opinions on what peer reviewed grants funded by the National Science Foundation should be cut through the YouCut Citizen Review website. While the majority of Americans strongly support climate education including federal support, it will be interesting to see whether climate change education, currently a Presidential Priority, is targeted for cuts.