A job fair for students at Shandong University of Science and Technology in Qingdao, China, on Sept. 23, 2023.

A job fair for students at Shandong University of Science and Technology in Qingdao, China, on Sept. 23, 2023. Costfoto / NurPhoto via Getty Images

To solve national security problems, the US may have to rethink higher education

Advanced STEM degrees take too much time and cost too much, said the former science and tech head at Homeland Security.

The state of American higher education, particularly in the sciences, is a bit “ridiculous,” and fixing it is critical to national security, said Dr. Tara O’Toole, senior fellow and executive vice president of In-Q-Tel. 

“I think graduate school in the sciences in the United States is ridiculous. It's too costly. It takes too long. It doesn't serve the needs of the students. And we need to rethink it,” O’Toole said Wednesday during a Center for the New American Security event on biotechnology and the economy. “I know, education is supposed to be the realm of the states, not the feds. But this is clearly a matter of national security and the feds are going to have to get involved.  Sooner would be better than later.” 

O’Toole, who previously served as the Department of Homeland Security’s top science and technology official, said revamping the education system starts with attracting more teachers. 

“After Sputnik, we created the National Defense Education Act, which is the primary reason I made it to medical school, because it threw a lot of money at revising the high school curriculum in science, supporting [advanced placement] courses and so forth. And that attracted both teachers and students. We have to do something like that,” she said. 

It’s an urgent need. The U.S. is lagging far behind China when it comes to mathematics, and just two-thirds of college students get their bachelor’s degree in six years, she said. 

“That's a terrible commentary on college, and it's even worse when you get to graduate school, and even worse if you look at the sciences, so we need to look at the whole educational system,” O’Toole said. 

The country needs more science-literate government leaders, she said. One way to do that is increasing the number of science-oriented fellowships and making it easier for workers to upskill in technical fields while they're in the federal government. 

“These people do great jobs, but we need to create slots for them,” O’Toole said. “And China also has an immense talent pipeline that we cannot lay claim to…and I think Congress is having a hard time grappling with these new technologies and what to do about them.”

The comments come just a year after the White House issued an executive order on advancing biotechnology, which tasked the government with expanding education opportunities in biotechnology and biomanufacturing. But part of the problem could be that many people still don’t know exactly what biotech is. 

“It is food, it is health. It is materials, and as all of the things that societies are depending on. And so it shouldn't surprise us that other countries are looking to these technologies, and we really need to as well in a much more concerted way,” said Megan Palmer, ​​​​​​​Ginkgo Bioworks’ senior director of public impact. “Not knowing and not being able to grapple with what biotechnology is and might be has really stopped us from being able to invest.” 

Longer-term goals and strategies have started to take form since last year’s executive order, she said, but there’s still work left to do. 

“Biotechnology is democracy's greatest ally,” Palmer said. It “enables everyone, everywhere, to participate in and benefit from these types of innovations. And that's a vision and a reality that I believe the U.S. and … partners and allies can uniquely advance and offer.”