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This article is from the In-Depth Report Science and the Obama Administration
See Inside February 2009

How Obama Can Boost the Economy by Investing in Science

The right investments could help restore the nation's economic strength and environmental sustainability



Matt Collins

One of the first orders of business for newly sworn-in President Barack Obama will be to push through a gigantic stimulus package to revive the U.S. economy from its coma. Debate swirls around how to spend that money; we would like to offer support for certain uses that seem both economically and scientifically worthy.

Obama has repeatedly emphasized, both on the campaign trail and in his postelection “fireside chats” on YouTube, that his economic recovery plan will steer massive funding toward America’s decaying and outmoded infrastructure. Multiple studies have documented how desperately U.S. bridges, highways, railways, dams, waterworks and other public resources need repair, modernization or replacement. In 2005 the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the state of U.S. infrastructure as “poor” and estimated that $1.6 trillion would be needed over five years to fix it.

So the nation’s infrastructure could surely absorb abundant stimulus spending. Moreover, the money would be well spent as an investment: according to economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com, a dollar spent on infrastructure typically adds $1.59 to the gross domestic product.

Economic sustainability, however, is intertwined with energy and environmental sustainability, particularly the fight against global warming. Investments in our country’s transportation system should not merely repair it: where possible, they should strategically realign it to encourage more use of mass transportation instead of private automobiles to help the U.S. curb its energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

To those ends, Obama has already pledged that his stimulus plan will make public buildings, including schools, more energy-efficient. Kudos on that good start, but don’t stop there, Mr. President. After decades of neglect as compared with heavily subsidized fossil fuels, every aspect of alternative energy development—from basic research to adoption and deployment—needs more investment, too. With the recent collapse of oil prices during the global recession, alternative energy technologies could use financial shelter while they develop.

The most widely beneficial stimulus investment, however, could be for the government to subsidize the improvement of the electrical infrastructure of the U.S. The grassroots adoption of solar, wind, geothermal and other clean power is stifled by the grid’s inefficiency at handling highly variable inputs and transmitting power over long distances. An investment in a 21st-century grid would encourage energy reform without particularly favoring any specific production technology.

Universal health care reform—essential for ensuring that the benefits of biomedical research reach everyone—was a high priority early in this past presidential campaign season that deserves to be addressed again now. Even putting aside humanitarian and public health concerns, the economic case for overhauling our fragmented, employer-based health care delivery system is compelling. The catastrophe for Detroit’s automakers, for example, was certainly accelerated by heavy employee health care costs that more sensibly should be a public responsibility. Projections by the Congressional Budget Office indicate that in the decades to come, Medicaid and Medicare will be the biggest drivers of federal spending—far larger than defense, Social Security or other entitlements; health care costs overall will double their share of the national economy by 2050. Only prompt, comprehensive, fundamental reform can stop health care from thwarting any attempt to retire the nation’s bailout-and-stimulus debt.

Obama and Congress may come under great pressure to try to offset these colossal outlays (if only symbolically) by slashing other parts of the budget. We can appreciate the discipline of austerity but still hope that no one will be tempted to take an ax to the general research budget. Scientific discovery remains the fuel for technological innovation, and ultimately innovation will be what helps the U.S. salvage the economy.

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