Our country is in the science doldrums, Neil deGrasse Tyson said at a press conference on Thursday.
The doldrums, he explained, are a region on the Earth’s surface where air doesn’t move horizontally.
“It either goes directly down, directly upward, or doesn’t move at all,” he said. “If you accidentally sail into that zone and all you have is windpower, you die there.”
So it’s safe to say that the doldrums are a pretty bad place to be. And considering that many people, including Tyson, consider innovations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to be intertwined with the economic health of the nation, we might want to get out of the science doldrums — fast.
“Everything we know about science and technology tells us that they are the engines of future economies,” Tyson told Business Insider. “They are the seeds of tomorrow’s growth of wealth. I’m not going to twist your arm to get you to like science, but I don’t have to twist arm to make you like money. If you don’t want to die poor you should invest in STEM.”
So how do we get out of these science doldrums?
By focusing on education and getting the nation’s young, bright minds interested in science.
And we’re not just talking about the kind of science you get out of high school textbooks. Tyson stressed the importance of informal education — school trips to museums, research projects, participating in competitions.
Research in education has shown that school trips taken in elementary school are remembered long into adulthood, Tyson said, adding that he still remembers a trip he took in 2nd grade to the post office.
“These are the seeds planted within children,” he said. “And those seeds gain taproots.”
The press conference, held at the American Museum of Natural History, announced biotech company Regeneron as the new $100 million sponsor for the ‘Nobel Prize of high school science competitions’ — the Science Talent Search (STS).
One of the founders of Regeneron, and an alumna of the STS, just happened to be Tyson’s friend and classmate at the Bronx High School of Science.
Although Tyson himself never entered the competition, he said that being surrounded by classmates who participated and won was a point of pride for him. These kids, he said, became heroes in their hometown, just like football quarterbacks or the center for a basketball team.
“The fact that you can do that with kids interested in science is an important first step to reinvigorate the country,” Tyson said. “To turn a sleepy country into an innovation nation.”