There’s a striking moment in the movie “Margin Call,” a dramatization of Wall Street panic on the eve of the financial crisis, when an employee is questioned about his educational qualifications. How, the boss asks, did an MIT-trained rocket scientist end up as a mid-level risk analyst?
“Well it’s all just numbers really; you’re just changing what you’re adding up,” the employee replies. “And if I may speak freely, the money is considerably more attractive here.”
The candid answer illuminates an alarming truth: the United States no longer values science like it once did.
It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to see Americans’ once-smoldering love affair with the subject has fallen on hard times. Student test scores continue to languish behind counterparts’ in Asia and Europe, and today’s brightest minds are increasingly more likely to take their talents to Wall Street than a laboratory.
And why shouldn’t they? Scientists are relatively underpaid compared to their peers in different industries. Worse, their once-admired intellectual prowess is now often dismissively viewed as “elitism.”
Toxic voices in our national discourse have convinced significant portions of the population that scientists are political pawns whose research can be ignored.
The superpower built by scientific innovation seems distrustful of — or worse, indifferent to — the very traits that elevated it to the top of the free world.
It wasn’t always this way. Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy stood on a stage at Rice University exhorting America to lead the most spectacular intellectual quest of all: exploring the great beyond.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy delivered this call to arms to a nation perched on the precipice of scientific history. Within seven years, an American man had stepped foot on the moon.
In 1969, this nation looked outward for progress. Today, our attention is focused inward on the same economic, military and social issues of the 20th century.
American passion for scientific exploration has faded as resources once devoted to studying the cosmos are shifted toward finding ways to expand market share.
Like the Righteous Brothers said, we’ve lost that loving feeling. Not everyone believes it’s gone, though.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is perhaps our best hope for inspiring a new generation of truth seekers. A child prodigy turned renowned astrophysicist, Tyson has emerged as the public face of American astronomy and one of the leading voices in the effort to revitalize our scientific culture.
It’s hard to think of anyone better suited to such a difficult task. His impressive credentials — Harvard and Columbia educations, director of the world-famous Hayden Planetarium in New York City — are accompanied by deft communication skills and slick media savvy.
Few professionals in any industry, let alone science, are as adept at reaching young audiences as Tyson. He’s a frequent guest on youth-oriented programs such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” and sometimes engages fans directly on websites like Reddit and Twitter.