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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
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."

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

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.

2 comments on “Scientific Stimulus”

  1. Isabel Y. says:

    The current economy has a lot of people looking for an online payday loan before it is too late. The tendency for companies to enact massive amounts of layouts seems to becoming quite the in style thing to do, as more companies have announced job cuts amounting to 45,000 jobs on Monday having been cut, creating more and more people that need a payday loan. The unemployment rate is continuing to rise, and it has hit levels higher than they have been since the Great Depression. Workers then couldn’t get a payday loan if they needed. Read more about the economy and online payday loans at the Personal Money Store money blog.

  2. Hendrik Pisem says:

    I agree.
    The tendency for companies to enact massive amounts of layouts seems to becoming quite the in style thing to do, as more companies have announced job cuts amounting of thousand of jobs on Monday having been cut, creating more and more people that need a payday loan. And we shouldn’t forget that all these people still need money for their lives, they buy food, they buy drugs (and I don’t talk about something fancy like viagra). I’m talking about surviving.
    Hopefully till the end of this year we will already see some improvements.
    I believe. Really.

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