Science, Technology and Economic Development

2222548359 e6a0b97e2b b Science, Technology and Economic Development

On April 27th, President Obama gave an inspiring speech at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C about the importance of scientific research and education. He began by describing the threats to global sustainability and economic well being faced throughout the world and here in the United States. He observed that:

 “At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities.  I fundamentally disagree.  Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

 While Presidential Candidate Obama was criticized by some during the endless Presidential campaign for being all talk and no action, the President Obama of the past 100 days has matched his words with deeds. He did that at the National Academy of Sciences when he announced:

 “Federal funding in the physical sciences as a portion of our gross domestic product has fallen by nearly half over the past quarter century.  …So I’m here today to set this goal:  We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development.  We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.”

 The President then discussed the transformative effects of science on our world view and sense of perspective. He related the often told story of Apollo 8’s first photos of the earth from beyond the moon:

 “In 1968, a year defined by loss and conflict and tumult, Apollo 8 carried into space the first human beings ever to slip beyond Earth’s gravity, and the ship would circle the moon 10 times before returning home.  But on its fourth orbit, the capsule rotated and for the first time Earth became visible through the windows.

Bill Anders, one of the astronauts aboard Apollo 8, scrambled for a camera, and he took a photo that showed the Earth coming up over the moon’s horizon.  It was the first ever taken from so distant a vantage point, and it soon became known as “Earthrise.”

Anders would say that the moment forever changed him, to see our world — this pale blue sphere — without borders, without divisions, at once so tranquil and beautiful and alone. “We came all this way to explore the moon,” he said, “and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” 

 I admit that I am not an objective observer of the science establishment.  I am a highly biased advocate of the importance of science education and research. I work for a great American research university, and one of my jobs at Columbia is to serve as Executive Director of the Earth Institute. Most of the more than 650 people who work at the Earth Institute are scientists; and they are, to a person, dedicated to the task of learning more about our planet, and teaching what they learn to students who come here from all over the world.

 President Obama’s actions in his first several months in office have been like a shot of adrenalin to the scientific community. People in our laboratories have been encouraged in ways that have not been seen in a generation. They are being challenged by national needs, by the President’s words, and by the sudden availability of funding to expand their research and train more students. 

 The increased funding is important because it will allow our scientists to spend less time searching for resources and more time working on their research. It will also encourage students to major in the sciences and consider careers engaged in scientific discovery. When the President advocates science and invests in scientists, it sends a powerful signal that cannot be underestimated. For much of the past quarter century many of our most talented quantitative minds headed toward Wall Street and shunned other, less lucrative professions. The combination of losses in the finance industry and increased funding for science can not help but direct some of our brain power away from finance and toward basic and applied sciences.

 I am not arguing that financial products are unimportant.  Providing capital in new and imaginative ways helps build new businesses and is essential to the process of bringing new technologies and goods to the market place. However, over the past several decades the finance industry dominated the market for young, quantitative minds. Tilting that market back in the direction of careers in basic and applied science and engineering is good for the United States and helps us compete in the global economy.

 President Obama and his science team deserve our praise and thanks for their effort to bring science research and education back into the center of American life. This is not science for its own sake, but science in our national interest. To quote, once again, from his talk to the National Academy:

 “The pursuit of discovery half a century ago fueled our prosperity and our success as a nation in the half century that followed.  The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another 50 years.”

 Economic growth in the 21st century shares at least one characteristic with growth in the 20th century. It is based on technological innovation. The new team in Washington clearly understands this fundamental fact.