Science Careers Blog

November 10, 2008

Scientific Stimulus

Over at Talking Points Memo, a liberal political blog, economist and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich provides a prescription for getting us out what he calls our current "mini-depression"--not a full-on 1930's crisis but worse than the periodic recessions the country (and the world) goes through every few years.

Reich's prescription: government spending, and lots of it. On what? "Mostly infrastructure," Reich writes -- "repairing roads and bridges, levees and ports; investing in light rail, electrical grids, new sources of energy, more energy conservation." Reich points out that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke agrees that economic stimulus is needed, and that "Even conservative economists like Harvard's Martin Feldstein are calling for government to stimulate the economy through infrastructure spending." That's because "Infrastructure projects like these pack a double-whammy: they create lots of jobs, and they make the economy work better in the future." Reich proposes also spending on childcare and healthcare, and adds a parenthetical "Important qualification: To do this correctly and avoid pork, the federal government will need to have a capital budget that lists infrastructure projects in order of priority of public need."

I'm trained in science, not economics, but my generic analytical skills suggest that Reich has it almost right. Spending on infrastructure, and thereby creating jobs and stimulating consumer spending--seems like a good idea. But I think he leaves out a very important category of public spending that ought to be increased to stimulate the economy: spending on science.

The government should invest in infrastructure improvement because America's infrastructure needs to be improved; job creation is merely an essential side effect. Similarly, investing in science would not be primarily a program to employ scientists. While unemployment rates among scientists are likely to rise along with those in other sectors--see Alan Kotok's blog entry from earlier today for insight into the impact the current economy is already having on academic hiring and layoffs--they're starting from a lower level and will probably rise more slowly. Unemployment among scientists just isn't a major problem right now compared to unemployment in the economy at large.

On the other hand, investing in science is always a good idea in the long term because science and technology are major engines driving economic growth. That's a very good reason for directing a big chunk of the anticipated $600-700 billion in stimulus spending towards science--but there might be a better reason still. The big problem with a recession--or a mini-depression--as Reich points out, is underutilized capacity. People out of work. Parked delivery trucks. Under-funded science labs. Under-stimulated scientists.

While unemployment among scientists remains quite low compared to other sectors, UNDERemployment among (especially young) scientists is already too high. Postdocs in their 6th or 7th year, stuck in their current positions without hope of better jobs at universities that are also struggling, are a huge un-tappedresource for the world economy. Unleash their creativity and give them money to spend on research and you stimulate the economy not just now but for years to come. Some projects we already know are needed: A new electric grid; alternative energy sources and alternative fuels. But science always comes up big in the long term in ways we never anticipated.

I'll leave it to others to decide precisely what form this investment in science should take. But the program MUST be designed to create independent research positions for early career scientists, and not merely to increase the number of postdocs in existing labs. A billion dollars could endow several hundred permanent faculty posts. In addition, Congress MUST commit to funding steady, healthy increases in the budgets of the nation's scientific funding agencies--not short-term spurts like the NIH doubling, which can be counterproductive. These investments, together, could pay off in a stronger scientific infrastructure, generating growth in new industries and improving our world economic standing, as China, India, and Singapore have already done.

The nation has a huge untapped resource in its underemployed scientists. Investing in them will yield benefits in the short term--and even more benefits in the long term.

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