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One Step Forward (Science), Two Steps Back (Politics)

Last weekend, the Financial Times published a column called “How To Invest in Babies” @ It conveyed the excitement of discovering what others have long known: investing early in children, in the form of good nutrition, early education, language development, and a nurturing environment favorably impacts their brain development and well-being, and yields a great return.

The article references correlations between child development and family income. The bottom line, not surprisingly, is that rich kids fare better.

But the article misses a more important point: Advances in science and technology have made more information available to us than at any time in human history about the consequences of how we invest or fail to invest in young children, but we have a larger gap than ever before between what we know and what we do about it. That gap, our “full potential gap,” weakens America’s schools, health care, economy, competitiveness and national security.  

Magnetic resonance imaging, genome mapping, and sophisticated monitoring open windows into the chemistry and biology of child development that could not even be imagined a few years ago. For the first time we know about brain development at the cellular level, about nutrition, about the role of parents in the development of language, about the benefits of other forms of stimulation. 

Imagine the outrage that would exist in other areas of society if we failed to act on what we know.  If there were a cure for breast cancer but inertia stalled its delivery… if research about the safety value of seatbelts, air bags or bike helmets had been read and put aside. But because poor children are invisible to most of us and voiceless, we are less quick to act, if we act at all. The powerful economic interests that pervert campaign financing and shape the legislative agenda focus more on perpetuating inequality than on investing in kids. And so the gap grows.

When running for president in 1960, one of John Kennedy’s most powerful campaign lines was: “We are facing a gap on which we are gambling with our survival …” He was referring to our competition with the Soviet Union over deployment of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The “missile gap” became a potent campaign issue. The same words are true today  applied to our full potential gap. We are facing a gap on which we are gambling with our survival…  Our politics need to catch up with our science if we are to ever close it.

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