The Why Files The Why Files --

Economic stimulus for science
Satellite in space, solar panels extended, with Earth in background
Photo: NOAA
The system of global positioning satellites, developed by the U.S. military to simplify location-finding, emerged from the invention of hyper-accurate atomic clocks in physics labs.

Plans for economic stimulus: Does science qualify?

Fannie Mae. Chrysler. Citibank. Lehman Brothers. AIG. As one dray horse of American industry follows another in the parade of stumblebums trudging toward the economy's glue factory, jobless numbers are racing, state budgets are falling, the Dow Jones is crashing, and who can even count the public tera-bucks galloping into what we recently termed the "private sector"?

Just a month ago, President-elect Obama was proclaiming that "the United States has only one president at a time." Now, he's publicly promising to surge from the starting gate Jan. 20 with a breathtakingly beefy plan for a "targeted, timely and temporary" rejuvenation of the foundering economy.

A racehorse that was half as sick as our economy would already have received a mercy killing, but we have to admit that economic stimulus sounds better than, well, economic euthanasia.

highway system is a complex of overlapping curves-shot from above
Photo: USGS
Interstate 85 meets Interstate 285, near Atlanta, Georgia. Should economic stimulus plans focus on pouring more concrete, or ramping up science research?

Although Obama advocates improving energy efficiency in public buildings and spending $15 billion over 10 years to explore low-carbon energy, the current stimulus buzzword is "infrastructure," often related to pouring concrete in roads, bridges and water treatment plants.

Graph shows that federal and non-federal funding had been increasing steadily since 1972
Graph: NSF
Although total research and development spending at universities has risen, the federal input has taken a sharp fall-off in the past couple of years.

But American competitiveness is built on innovation, which rests, in turn, on basic research. Could ramping up spending on fundamental research be as important as building new on-ramps to new highways? Is there anything to hate about a stimulus plan that puts people to work while inventing the basis for tomorrow's products and cures?

This just in: Scientists are people, too!

Research budgets surged earlier this decade, but then they flat-lined. In fiscal 2007, federal spending on academic research and development (R&D) dropped, in real dollar terms, for a second straight year, in the first back-to-back declines since the National Science Foundation began tracking research budgets in 1972. However, after-inflation R&D spending did rise by 0.8 percent in 2007.

But with the guesstimated price tag of an economic stimulus reaching a significant fraction of one trillion dollars, could science deserve a higher position on the ladder? Specifically, should the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, the top two sources (in that order) of basic research funds, get an appropriation to support more of the grants which they have given a positive review?

For the record, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, publisher of The Why Files, spent $841 million on research in fiscal 2007.

So is this just more pointy-headed special pleading?

Terry Devitt, editor; Nathan Hebert, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2017, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.