Preparing America’s children for the 21st century is among our most important national priorities. Today’s children face the promise of a new century of unparalleled opportunity in which new technologies, improvements in health, expanding economies, and other advances create the hope that their future will be the brightest of any generation in history. Yet, too many of them face obstacles that obscure that bright future, including poverty, violence, child abuse, limited educational opportunity, and unhealthy behaviors. The devastating economic, social, and human costs of these obstacles are indisputable. Addressing these challenges to their future and investing in opportunities so that all children can reach their full potential. An essential component of this strategy is undertaking research to provide new knowledge of ways to improve their futures and to provide sound guidance for policy makers to assure that efforts to help are likely to succeed.
Numerous indicators of the well-being of our children and families paint a mixed picture of successes and shortcomings. Our national infant mortality rate is declining rapidly and is at a record low, but is still higher than that of many other countries. Our children’s test scores in reading and science are improving but still trail those of several other industrialized nations. Our school dropout rate is unacceptably high, costing over $250 billion each year in lost earnings and foregone taxes, as well as lost human potential. Our teenage pregnancy rate is declining slightly, but is still the highest in the developed world.
Our national vaccination coverage is the highest ever, but in many communities less than 50 percent of two-year-olds are adequately immunized. A similar picture of gains and unmet goals exists with respect to youth violence, child poverty, smoking, and other substance abuse. Much of the progress achieved in these and other areas is the result of critical research efforts that have advanced our understanding of how children and youths develop into healthy and productive individuals. Research has helped to inform policy decisions and program development, track outcomes, and identify strategies that work and those that do not.
The Federal investment in research has clearly paid dividends in terms of improved outcomes for children and a healthier and brighter outlook for the entire Nation. Despite such important achievements, much remains to be done: Significant gaps persist in our understanding of how children grow up to be healthy, well-educated, and responsible members of society. Given the profoundly changing nature of our communities and Nation, strengthening the Federal research enterprise on child and adolescent development and expanding its role in shaping relevant policy are especially crucial to serving national goals.