By Tom Still

MADISON – The day an archeologist finds a fossil cat or dog in Precambrian rock is the day Charles Darwin’s evolution theory is disproved. But that hasn’t happened. In fact, the Earth’s fossil records tell a consistent scientific story through the ages: Today’s living species descended — with modification — from common ancestors that lived in our ancient past.

Creationists don’t buy that. They accept the Genesis account of God’s handiwork in its most literal sense, complete with a belief Earth is really only several thousand years old. One court decision after another has kept creationism out of public schools. But now comes the “intelligent design” theory, which offers the less black-and-white (but still anti-Darwin) explanation that certain aspects of life are best explained by an intelligent cause or design rather than natural selection. Why not “teach the controversy,” Darwinian skeptics ask?

The intelligent designers were boosted this month when President Bush, much to the dismay of mainstream scientists, urged that “both sides ought to be properly taught so people can understand what the debate is about … I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.”

It sounds open-minded and fair, but the truth of the matter is there’s not much of a controversy to teach. The overwhelming body of scientific evidence supports Darwin and natural selection, or evolution, even though many people want to believe in a “divine spark.” Conversely, science has never produced any evidence against God, so people of faith will continue to believe as they wish.

The real question is not evolution versus intelligent design, but whether this debate is worth more than a nanosecond of public effort? Given the more urgent challenges in science education today, it would be far more useful if the president turned his attention to America’s declining edge in science and engineering.

Hardly a week passes without a reminder that the United States needs the 21st century equivalent of a race to the moon or the Manhattan Project – an undertaking that catapaults the nation back into a scientific lead. Whether the news is about problems with the aging space shuttle program or breakthroughs in cloning and stem cell research that take place outside our borders, we are regularly reminded that American science is under assault.

In recent reports by the New York Times and the National Science Foundation, experts concluded the United States has started to lose its worldwide dominance in the sciences. Foreign advances in basic science now often rival or even exceed those in the United States, based on such key indicators as prizes awarded to American scientists, patents and the number of papers published in major professional journals.

Here are some recently reported statistics:

?      The U.S. share of its own industrial patents has fallen steadily over the decades and now stands at 52 percent.
?      Physical Review, a series of top physics journals, recently tracked a reversal in which American papers, in two decades, fell from a majority to a minority. Last year the total was 29 percent, down from 61 percent in 1983.
?      The American share of Nobel Prizes, after peaking from the 1960s to the 1990s, has fallen in the 2000s to about half, 51 percent.

There are some logical explanations. For example, American scientists tend to work more in teams, so published papers often reflect the work of larger groups of researchers than may be common in other nations. Still, there is mounting concern that the United States may be losing its scientific and innovation edge – at precisely the time when science and innovation are driving the economy.

It’s not a panic-button situation, yet. But it’s important that American colleges and universities rise to the challenge. Also, public schools across the nation do a better job of preparing K-12 students for a future that will be more technically demanding. That’s especially true for K-12 children who are poor or come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The supply of technically trained workers in America would soar if we simply used the young people we already have to their highest potential.

The debate over evolution and intelligent design is nothing more than a parlor game, and hardly worth presidential intervention. If Bush wants to worry about science education, he could begin by asking how our schools can train the next generation of scientists and engineers. Our long-term security depends on it.