In the city of Natal, in northeast Brazil there is something unique going on.
In 2003, a group of Brazilian scientists, backed by the government and several universities and inspired by the great Brazilian inventor and aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont (the first man to fly a powered, controllable airship), established the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal. The ELS-IINN was built around a simple concept, use state of the art science to affect the social and economic transformation of one of the least developed regions in the world.
No, they're not doing some kind of bizarre third-world experiment on the peasant children - far from it. What they've done is establish a first-rate science education curriculum that so far has grown to include over a thousand children in the poorest, and most poorly performing, education district in South America. Their goal is to enroll at least one million children, nationwide, in the most comprehensive science and technology education program in Brazilian history.
Twenty-five years ago, Brazil was a military dictatorship. Today, it's a fast growing and vibrant democracy - 80 million people vote in every election. And they are rapidly becoming a world leader in food production and biofuel research and development. It's not perfect, and most Brazilians would tell you that: around the edge of this new found prosperity there are many poor and disenfranchised. And that's what the ELS-IINN is all about. Instead of welfare, or ineffective short-term and short-sighted quick-fixes, Brazil has chosen a long-term, permanent solution - education, based on a foundation of solid, cutting edge science. And it's working, the progress is slow but steady, and, once established, self sustaining and self-starting. The ELS-IINN is giving their children the tools to dig themselves out of poverty and to harness the creativity and innovation that comes from a solid education. Brazil is building it's own future, down there in the jungle, and it's a good one.
Which brings us back to the United States.
Soon, very soon, we as a nation are going to have to deal with some very thorny issues: adapting to a changing climate (which will have far ranging impacts in every facet of our society), finding alternate sources of affordable and sustainable energy, maintain an edge in science and technology (which is critical to our position in the world), building an infrastructure of sustainable food production in an era of declining ocean stocks and arable land, and the list goes on and on. As Brazil has realized, the solutions to the these problems are completely surmountable. Humans are problem solvers, it's what we excel at. When the problems are simple and resources abundant, sloppy thinking and pseudo-science might see you through, or at least see enough of you through to make it seem as if things are working. But in the long run, a poor understanding of how the world actually works will lead to either a gradual decay or sudden collapse. History is rife with examples, from the Mayans to the Roman and British Empires to the Soviet Union.
It is imperative that the future leaders of this country understand this. We cannot afford yet another President who is ill-informed, dismissive, or deluded regarding the role of science and education. During the 2004 presidential elections, there was an abortive bid to stage a 'town-hall' type discussion on this exact subject with the candidates. It didn't happen. This time things aren't much better, last May three of the Republican candidates went on record as disbelieving in the theory of evolution (in fact, at least one is a Young Earth Creationist), several candidates have made statements dismissing a human-role in global climate change despite solid multidisciplinary science to the contrary, and both sides have yet to propose a realistic and doable policy for redesigning our energy infrastructure.
Two months ago, a grassroots, bipartisan movement of concerned citizens established Science Debate 2008 and issued a call for a debate that would focus solely on science. Forcing the candidates to discuss, openly and in public, their views on the environment, health and medicine, and science and technology policy. Science Debate 2008 is made up of many people, including twelve Nobel laureates, scientists from many disciplines, former presidential science advisers, sitting congressional representatives, and business leaders. I highly encourage you all to get involved and you can learn more here: www.sciencedebate2008.com.