The 2012 presidential election will be won by the candidate who can convince voters that he has the vision to lift the nation out of the economic doldrums. The economy is the right topic, but the discussion neglects the true driver of the country's prosperity: scientific and technological enterprise. Half of the U.S. economic growth since World War II has come from advances in science and technology. To neglect that power—and the government's role in priming the pump—would be foolish.
The auto industry is a case in point. President Barack Obama makes much out of having rescued Detroit's carmakers from bankruptcy. This achievement won't hold up, however, unless the thousands of small auto-parts manufacturers down the supply chain stay globally competitive. One way to help them would be to foster initiatives like the National Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Consortium, which is providing independent manufacturers potent information technology at Purdue University and the Ohio Supercomputer Center. By harnessing this science and technology strength, we can generate a competitive advantage for small businesses.
President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney ought to be talking about how to use programs like this to bring about the kind of success that Germany has achieved. The German government encourages a close partnership between technical universities and industrial manufacturers; it supports centers where scientists and engineers pursue fundamental research in close proximity to industrial colleagues investigating more applied technologies. German battery makers, for instance, work with technical universities on nanotechnology, while textile makers contribute to research in carbon fibers for composite fabrics. Could there be a grander vision for harnessing U.S. research talent in this way? On this, both candidates have been silent.
Research can also advance other strategic national goals, such as energy security. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy funded and helped to develop the shale-cracking techniques that have released the country's current surplus of natural gas. And no nuclear reactor has ever been built in this country without financial and scientific support from all levels of government.
The next administration could play a large role in developing novel nuclear reactors and cheap solar power, among other technologies. Yet on this issue the candidates differ markedly, according to their responses to 14 science questions posed by Scientific American and ScienceDebate.org [see “America's Science Problem,” on page 62]. While Obama touts the $90 billion in federal investments in clean energy research made on his watch, Romney repudiates this “green energy agenda.”
His thinking is shortsighted. The bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra in 2011, which critics have used to argue against government support of energy research, instead shows why such investment is so important: experimental projects always carry a high risk of failure, which is why commercial firms are reluctant to undertake them. Yet without them, innovation will slow. The DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy funds ideas that may sound like science fiction to some—genetically modifying microbes to produce fuel, for example. History shows that such bold efforts will yield the beginnings of new industries. In 1962, for example, a researcher envisioned a fanciful “Galactic Network” that would connect distant computers, inspiring the Pentagon project that eventually became the Internet.
A high-tech economy needs the best scientists and engineers, yet in science and math, U.S. students are middling. The Obama administration has had some success by tying grants for K–12 schools to Common Core math standards, but neither candidate has come out in support of the Next Generation Science Standards recommended by the National Research Council.