“How many scientists are in your government?” People asked me all sorts of things when I visited Moscow last year, but that simple question, and its expectation that naturally there should be many, made me pause. I knew of Russia's multimillion-dollar “megagrant” investments to encourage expatriate researchers to work in the country and the around $11 billion set aside to gin up nanotechnology businesses. Visiting Doha, Qatar, I learned about that country's pursuit of a “knowledge-based economy” and its aims to foster solar energy for desalination as well as telemedicine. At the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, I saw nearly billboard-size portraits of science's eminent figures, celebrity-style. Clearly, many nations see science as their ticket to a better future.
I reflected on my own country's uneven relationship with science. Technological innovation is responsible for half the U.S.'s economic growth since World War II. It has been the engine of our modern prosperity. Yet today we are faltering in critical areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and in maintaining sufficient budgets for research. It was high time, I decided, that the U.S. started focusing on what matters.
With that ambitious goal, we began work on this issue's special report, “State of the World's Science.” Executive editor Fred Guterl has organized an array of stories on the critical themes in global science today, from the rise of China to the manufacturing power of Germany to the best ways to encourage individual scientific achievement. Informational graphics highlight such features as research spending and the number of papers published in select journals. Turn to page 36 for the start of the section. As I hope you will agree, the result is thought-provoking—and inspiring.
At the second annual Google Science Fair awards event, I had the privilege of bestowing trophies on the 14-year-old winners of the Scientific American–sponsored Science in Action Award. The award, for a project that helps a community with a social, health or environmental issue, is $50,000 and a year of mentoring to continue the work. Bonkhe Mahlalela and Sakhiwe Shongwe developed a simplified hydroponics system that uses 90 percent waste materials (cardboard boxes, sawdust, chicken manure) and improved productivity in crops tested by 140 percent. Believing that education and simple science can create self-sufficiency, they plan to use part of their prize money to train Swazi subsistence farmers. —M.D.