Nearly Half of All Living Nobel Prize Laureates in the Sciences Personally Endorse a Repeal of Bobby Jindal’s Science Education Act

During the last two months, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has attempted to assert his commitment to meaningful and substantive public education reform, introducing a series of controversial bills that would, essentially, defund struggling public schools in order to bankroll private, parochial, and charter schools. Mr. Jindal, who unveiled his plan in front of the largest business lobbying group in Louisiana, wants to give private schools almost unfettered access to public education dollars ($8500 per student per year), a program that is politely and deceptively couched as “vouchers” but is, for all intents and purposes, really just an effort to massively divest from one of America’s most important privileges and rights– a free and public education– in order to fund and prop up an untested and completely unaccountable private education system.

Mr. Jindal, who is the product of one of Louisiana’s best public high schools- Baton Rouge Magnet, is coughing up his plan as if it is empirically-proven and data-driven. But it isn’t. It’s disaster capitalism run amok; it’s a recipe for failure, a sure-fire way of ensuring that publicly-owned educational assets become blighted, depressed, and potentially abandoned entirely. In the short-term, it means giving away precious public education dollars to help underwrite for-profit enterprises who operate by their own standards; it means extricating the best and brightest students out of the public system and leaving behind everyone else– students, teachers, parents, and entire communities; it ensures diminishing returns in the public education system, gutting its necessary funding and deplenishing it of students who help set the curve; it means teachers will be paid less and earn fewer benefits and protections. In the long-term, this large-scale disinvestment will affect the quality of life for all Louisianans, particularly those in working-class neighborhoods. Their schools, many of which serve as anchor institutions, will become neglected– not merely as educational facilities but as physical infrastructure. Mr. Jindal’s plan may sound good to those who see the dollar signs in privatization, but to the rest of us, to those who view education as a right, to those of us who believe in the solvency and the potentiality of a robust public education system, every dollar that lines the pocket of a private school operator is a dollar that could otherwise be used to build up America’s most incredible invention: the right to a free education. Jindal’s plan will not save this right; it will, almost certainly, destroy it.

If you have any question about Mr. Jindal’s intellectual honesty on education issues, then you need to look no further than the Louisiana Science Education Act. I’ve written about this issue frequently, because I think it exposes Mr. Jindal’s contempt for education standards, his inexcusable pandering to the extreme radical wing of his party, and his hypocrisy. The moment a student with standing decides to sue on Constitutional grounds, Mr. Jindal’s Louisiana Science Education Act will finally, once and for all, be exposed for what it is: A usurpation of science by a small and politically-powerful sect of the radical religious right, new earth creationists who believe, as a matter of faith, that their understanding of the universe is somehow scientifically valid; these are rabid proselytizers and aggressively insecure evangelicals who don’t respect the First Amendment and who attempt to hold onto narrowly-constructed nuance (creationism education in public science classrooms has been deemed unconstitutional, so, in response, they hit “Replace All” and changed “creationism” with “intelligent design”).

So, with permission, here is Dr. Ian Chandler Binns’s essay, introducing the 75 (now 77) Nobel Prize laureates who personally oppose Governor Bobby Jindal’s science education act. And to anyone with a fair and open mind, Dr. Binn reminds us that Mr. Jindal’s policy positions are not driven by real data or statistics or empirical evidence, that Mr. Jindal, however impressive his resume may be, does not understand science education or at least pretends not to understand it (Jindal was a Biology major at Brown, and his own biology professor personally criticized Jindal for the LSEA), and that Mr. Jindal’s legislation is anti-science, anti-intellectual, and, most importantly, terrible education policy. At this point, though, maybe it’s par for the course.

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Profiles of the 75 Nobel Laureates Who Support Repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act

 Ian C. Binns, Ph.D., Science Education, University of Virginia

Assistant Professor, College of Education, University of North Carolina-Charlotte

 Formerly of Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA

 Member, Louisiana Coalition for Science

For the second year in a row, Senator Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) has filed a bill to repeal the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). This year’s bill is SB 374Zack Kopplin, a 2011 graduate of Baton Rouge Magnet High School and now a freshman at Rice University, is leading the effort again. Last year, in addition to several other prominent scientists, scientific organizations, and educational organizations, Zack had the support of 43 Nobel Laureates, 42 of whom signed a letter to the Louisiana legislature in their attempt to help repeal the LSEA. Unfortunately, that effort failed in the Senate Education Committee, a development which — of course — was celebrated by the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) and the Discovery Institute (DI), who worked together to write and promote the LSEA. DI responded to the repeal bill’s failure in two articles on its Evolution News and Views blog (see here and here). In both articles, DI promoted a letter[pdf] signed by “15 Ph.D. scientists” challenging “the ideological motives of many of the scientists who have opposed the LSEA.” This letter will be addressed in a separate Louisiana Coalition for Science post. However, this post highlights the achievements of the Nobel Prize-winning scientists who support repeal of the creationist LSEA.

This year, Zack added 32 additional Nobel Laureates to the list, bringing the total to 75 (32 in Physics, 28 in Chemistry, and 15 in Physiology or Medicine). Getting 43 last year was pretty impressive, but 75 Nobel Laureates! As with last year, this number doesn’t include the other endorsements: seven additional prominent scientists, the City Council of New Orleans (unanimously), the Clergy Letter Project, three organizations of educators, and six national science organizations. That’s quite an impressive group of people who support the protection of science education in Louisiana.

However, I have learned through my involvement in the repeal effort and participation in defending the state textbook selection process in 2010 (see here) that merely having a list of individuals and organizations, even one as impressive as this, isn’t enough. I recently read a comment posted to an article about the current repeal effort in which the commenter asked whether anyone had ever heard of any of the 75 Nobel Laureates. The comment made me think that most Louisiana legislators probably feel the same way. This year, I thought it would be interesting to not only talk about the number of Nobel Laureates, but to look at some of the advancements we have made as a society because of their contributions to science. I hope that after learning about how these scientists have helped advance human wellbeing, it will be more difficult for Louisiana legislators to turn their backs on these Nobel Laureates’ support for repeal of the LSEA.

After several weeks of researching each of the 75 Laureates, I found some very interesting information on how their work has improved society. Ideally, I would like to share all of this information. Since this is impractical, my goal is not to focus on the scientific explanations of their work but simply to address how it has benefitted society. Readers who want to learn more about the science behind their work can go to theNobel Prize website, which provides a nice summary of each winner’s work in a press release and, in some cases, a section called “Popular Information” (see here and here, for example).

I have organized their work into three main areas: scientific advancements, technological advancements, and medical advancements. Finally, I also included statements of acclaim made by other members of the scientific community. I would like to point out that all of these scientists worked with a team of people. In fact, of the 75 Nobel Laureates who support the repeal effort, all except eight shared the award with at least one other scientist. However, I am going to focus only on the Laureates who support repeal of the LSEA.

Scientific Advancements

The work of all 75 Nobel Laureates has led to scientific advancements. My purpose in this section is to focus on only those scientists whose work primarily led to further advances in basic science instead of applied disciplines such as technology or medicine. Some of the Nobel Laureates have been credited for strengthening a specific scientific discipline. For example, Christian de Duve (1974; Physiology or Medicine), who discovered lysosomes and peroxisomes (two important organelles in cells), has “been largely responsible for the creation of modern Cell Biology” (Nobel Prize [NP] press release). Riccardo Giacconi (2002; Physics), the first person to detect a source of x-rays outside our solar system, was credited for laying the “foundations of X-ray astronomy” (NP press release). Gerhard Ertl (2007; Chemistry), who studies surface chemistry, has “laid the foundation of modern surface chemistry” (NP “Information for the Public”) [pdf].

Ben Mottelson (1975; Physics), who shared his award with Aage Bohr, the son of Niels Bohr, was one of the key scientists whose work led to a “deepened understanding of the structure of the atomic nucleus” (NP press release). Leon Lederman (1988; Physics), who is arguably one of the top particle physicists in the world and whom Chicago Museum of Science and Technology once called a “modern day Leonardo da Vinci,” was part of the team that developed the neutrino beam method and discovered muon neutrinos. Due to their work, “neutrinos have been used to analyze everything from the structure of the atomic nucleus to the energy level of an exploding star, or supernova” (Academy of Achievement).

Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess, the most recent winners in physics, received their award for discovering that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating. This discovery has had an enormous impact on our understanding of the universe. Finally, if all of this isn’t sufficiently impressive, then perhaps understanding the impact of the work of Paul Crutzen (1995; Chemistry) and Mario Molina (1995; Chemistry) would be interesting. These two scientists won their awards for their work on ozone layer depletion and their identification of the cause of the hole in the ozone layer. The Nobel Prize press release indicated that “[b]y explaining the chemical mechanisms that affect the thickness of the ozone layer, the three researchers have contributed to our salvation from a global environmental program that could have catastrophic consequences.”

Technological Advancements

It was really interesting to learn how the work of some of the 75 Nobel Laureates has led to many technological advancements that we take for granted. For example, Herbert Kroemer’s (2000; Physics) research has directly impacted literally everyone’s daily life. His research on transistors has “furthered the development of the cell phone and other wireless communications technologies” (IEEE Global History Network). All Louisiana legislators probably have some sort of a wireless communication device, especially considering that as of June 2011, there were 322.8 million wireless subscriber connections in the United States alone (CTIA Advocacy). What about GPS technology? William Phillips and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji(1997; Physics) and John Hall (2005; Physics) have all contributed to the development of better GPS technology. I can think of multiple occasions when my GPS has helped me when I was either lost or trying to find a way around heavy traffic.

The work of at least two Laureates has had a direct impact on the computer industry. Philip Warren Anderson’s (1977; Physics) work led to the development of memory devices for computers. Albert Fert’s(2007; Physics) work has made it possible for hard drives to read and write more data. In fact, a 2007 article in ScienceDaily indicated that “it is thanks to this technology [discovered by Albert Fert] that it has been possible to miniaturize hard disks so radically in recent years.”

Finally, flat screen LCD and LED TVs are becoming more popular each year. Alan Heeger (2000; Chemistry) is one Nobel Laureate that we can thank for this. His work with conductive polymers has helped this technology advance. The 2000 Nobel Prize press release stated the following about his work and the impact on LED TVs: “In a few years…, flat television screens based on LED film will become reality, as will luminous traffic signs and information signs.”

Medical Advancements

Probably the most important area to consider is how the work of some of the 75 Nobel Laureates has led to advancements in the field of medicine, including pharmaceuticals, improved understandings of diseases or other medical issues, and new non-pharmaceutical treatments.

Pharmaceuticals

At least 13 of the 75 have directly contributed to advancement of the pharmaceutical industry. Susumu Tonegawa (1987; Physiology or Medicine) and Peter Doherty (1996; Physiology or Medicine) have both contributed to our understanding of how our immune system protects us from various diseases. Their work has made it possible for scientists to develop vaccines to combat several ailments, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes. The work of Robert H. Grubbs and Richard Schrock (2005; Chemistry) has also greatly impacted the pharmaceutical industry. They developed a method for creating new molecules that is more efficient, cheaper, and environmentally friendly. The “Information for the Public” [pdf] on the 2005 chemistry prize web page states that this new process is “an important weapon in the hunt for new pharmaceuticals for treating many of the world’s major diseases.” These diseases include bacterial infections, hepatitis C, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Down’s syndrome, osteoporosis, arthritis, and HIV/AIDS.

Several other of the Laureates supporting repeal of the LSEA have directly impacted the pharmaceutical industry. These include Roald Hoffmann (1981; Chemistry), who introduced theoretical models for chemical reactions; Elias Corey (1990; Chemistry), who developed the theory and methodology of organic synthesis;Kurt Wuthrich (2002; Chemistry), who determined the 3D structure of different biological macromolecules in solution; and Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien (2008; Chemistry), both of whom worked on the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein. The contributions of these scientists have dramatically improved our ability to combat several diseases with a variety of medications.

I conclude this section by focusing on the combined efforts of four of the 75 Laureates. The first two, Peter Agre and Roderick MacKinnon, shared the award (2003; Chemistry) for their work with water channels and ion channels in cells. Their discoveries made it possible to develop “new and more effective pharmaceuticals” (NP press release). An article from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine states that because of Peter Agre’s contributions, scientists now have a “fundamental understanding, at the molecular level, of malfunctioning channels associated with many diseases of the kidneys, skeletal muscle, and other organs.” The second two are Venki Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, who shared the award (2009; Chemistry) for their studies of the structure and function of the ribosome. According to the NP press release, these two scientists “generated 3D models that show how different antibiotics bind to the ribosome. These models are now used by scientists in order to develop new antibiotics, directly assisting the saving of lives and decreasing humanity’s suffering.”

Understanding Diseases

Another area influenced by several of the 75 Nobel Laureates is our understanding of diseases and other medical issues, primarily the study of cancer. The American Cancer Society expects [pdf, p. 55] roughly 1.6 million new cases to be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2012. The chances are high that people reading this post know someone who either currently has or previously had cancer. I included this information to highlight how significant the impact of the Laureates’ work has been on our understanding and treatment of this disease. Each of the following Laureates has had a direct impact on the search for a cure: Paul Berg (1980; Chemistry); Sir Richard Roberts and Phillip Sharp (1993; Physiology or Medicine); Peter Doherty (1996; Physiology or Medicine); Robert Horvitz and John Sulston (2002; Physiology or Medicine); Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko (2004; Chemistry); Roger Kornberg (2006; Chemistry); and Jack Szostak (2009; Physiology or Medicine).

Cancer isn’t the only area that these Nobel Laureates have impacted. David Baltimore (1975; Physiology or Medicine) is a pioneer in the study of viruses that cause tumors in humans (especially retroviruses like HIV).Erwin Neher (1991; Physiology or Medicine) improved our understanding of diseases like diabetes and cystic fibrosis. Eric Wieschaus’s (1995; Physiology or Medicine) work improved our understanding of the cause of some early miscarriages and birth defects. Stanley Prusiner (1997; Physiology or Medicine) improved our understanding of the cause of dementia-related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and “mad cow” disease. Arvid Carlsson’s (2000; Physiology or Medicine) work led to the discovery of the cause of Parkinson’s disease as well as advancements in our understanding of schizophrenia and depression. What makes Arvid Carlsson’s contribution so interesting is that, according to an article from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, a treatment for Parkinson’s disease that stemmed from his work is still “the most effective treatment available for Parkinson’s disease.” The interesting part is that he conducted his research in the late 1950s and early 1960s, over 50 years ago!

Medical Treatments

A final area in which some of these Nobel Laureates have had a direct impact is in non-pharmaceutical medical treatments. Richard Ernst (1991; Chemistry) and Alexei Abrikosov (2003; Physics) have both had an influence on the use of magnetic resonance imaging, better known as MRI. Torsten Wiesel’s (1981; Physiology or Medicine) work on information processing in the visual system led to more effective treatments for congenital cataracts (see also The Rockefeller University). Finally, Craig Mello’s (2006; Physiology or Medicine) work has helped scientists find ways to control high blood pressure and seek potential treatments for “virus infections, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, endocrine disorders, and several other conditions” (NP press release).

Statements of Acclaim

I want to end by sharing some pretty impressive statements about some of the Nobel Laureates who are supporting repeal of the LSEA. These statements speak for themselves:

  • Murray Gell-Mann (1969; Physics) – “No scientist has done more to shape our understanding of the universe than Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Prize-winner often considered the most brilliant physicist of his generation.” (From the 1999 book Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics, by George Johnson)
  • Russell Hulse (1993; Physics) – “Hulse and Taylor’s discovery has been ranked by many as among the most important scientific accomplishments of the 20th Century.” (UT-Dallas press release)
  • Paul Crutzen and Mario Molina (1995; Chemistry) – “The discoveries [about the ozone layer] led to an international environmental treaty, which, by the end of this year, bans the production of industrial chemicals that reduce the ozone layer.” (Article in The Tech, MIT newspaper)
  • Paul Crutzen (1995; Chemistry) – “It was thanks to Paul Crutzen that we skirted a previous global atmospheric threat: the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer. If the warnings from him and his fellow winners of the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, hadn’t come when they did, the Antarctic ozone hole might have proved disastrous.” (TimeMagazine article by James Hansen, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)
  • John Mather (2006; Physics) – “On April 29, 1992, the English physicist Stephen Hawking said in an interview in The Times that the COBE [satellite proposed by Mather and launched in 1989] results were ‘the greatest discovery of the century, if not of all times.’” (NP ”Information for the Public”) [pdf]
  • Craig Mello (2006; Physiology or Medicine) – “It is very unusual for a piece of work to completely revolutionize the whole way we think about biological processes and regulation, but this has opened up a whole new field in biology.” (Comment by Professor Nick Hastie, director of the Medical Research Council’s Human Genetics Unit (UK), in a BBC News article)

Conclusion

Citizens who are trying to protect the teaching of science are fighting an uphill battle in Louisiana. It is important to point out to the Louisiana Senate Education Committee and to the rest of the Louisiana legislature the contributions of the scientists they are disregarding. Perhaps it would be helpful to just send this document directly to each legislator on the Senate Education Committee. I was already impressed with these 75 Nobel Laureates just for having won the world’s most prestigious prize. However, understanding how their contributions have benefitted society and even directly impacted my own life makes me want to meet them and personally thank them for all they have done — and for their support of such an important effort as the repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act.

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