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Recovering Innovation, Innovating to Recover

Stimulus Plan Provides Critical Support for R&D

woman in chem lab SOURCE: flickr/gregclarkephotography The proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act recognizes that science, technology and innovation have long provided the foundation for America’s prosperity, and are crucial to boosting an economy in crisis.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 published this week by House Appropriations Budget Committee Chairman David Obey is of the scale and breadth necessary to begin to tackle the economic chaos that President-elect Barack Obama will inherit from President George Bush.

The Act addresses many of the critical areas that politicians and economists alike have been discussing in recent weeks. It makes investments in clean energy that will form a solid foundation upon which to build a 21st-century low-carbon economy. It addresses the creaking infrastructure needs that are slowing down U.S. business competitiveness. It helps those most hurt by the recession, invests in education, lowers health care costs, and provides necessary funds to save vital public services at the state level.

But as outlined in the Center for American Progress report, “A National Innovation Agenda,” the Act also recognizes the importance of science, technology and innovation, which “have long provided the foundation for America’s prosperity.”

A key part of this agenda is ensuring that the United States has the innovation infrastructure necessary for it to compete on the global stage.

Getting the economy back on track is not enough unless the recovery is sustained and living standards once again rise in line with economic growth and increases in productivity. The steps necessary to achieve this were set out in the CAP report, “Progressive Growth.” A key part of this agenda is ensuring that the United States has the innovation infrastructure necessary for it to compete on the global stage. Although the United States remains the world’s most innovative economy, other countries particularly in East Asia are quickly catching up. Underinvestment in recent years has precipitated this decline.

To address this, the Recovery Act announced several critical investments, including $6 billion for broadband and wireless services, $20 billion for health information technology, $1 billion for technology improvements for a more efficient and secure government, $1 billion for education technology, and $11.7 billion for scientific research.

The stimulus proposal also includes significant funds supporting research and development efforts across the physical, environmental, and life sciences. Despite a modest supplemental boost in June, assistance here comes at a time when total budgetary authority for R&D has been dropping in real dollars; adjusted for inflation, it declined 1.9 percent overall in fiscal year 2007-2008. In biomedical research, the situation is more severe. Continuous flat funding for the National Institutes of Health has dropped its inflation-adjusted research budget to a level 13 percent lower than where it was five years ago.

The Recovery Act would allot $2 billion for NIH, the amount CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss recommended last October. This funding can support researchers who are working on cures for a healthier country. It can potentially help the younger generation of scientists who have been squeezed out of the NIH funding process because of the tightening budgets. Some 80 percent of grant requests go unfunded at the agency, and the competitive process favors established researchers—the average age of a scientist winning his or her first NIH grant is 42 years.

Additional funding through the National Science Foundation—$3 billion—will expand opportunities for scientists working on America’s energy and health challenges, while investing in research for the future.

But just as grantmaking agencies can create and sustain good jobs with additional funding, they also have to maintain the facilities where scientists work. Just like the highway system, much of our country’s research infrastructure needs upgrading. Chairman Obey’s bill includes construction funds to renovate existing facilities at universities and institutes and build new ones: $400 million for the National Science Foundation, $1.5 billion for NIH, $462 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, $300 million for the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and $50 million to repair hurricane-damaged NASA facilities.

Support for basic research in the physical sciences will help maintain U.S. competitiveness in the field. While the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland may have blown a gasket before going into operation last September, it nonetheless pulled the gravitational center of particle research away from the United States. The Recovery Act provides $1.9 billion for basic research through the Department of Energy, along with $400 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which pursues potentially transformative high-risk, high return work—a critical approach that has fallen, all too often, out of federal funding favor.

As a complement to the $73 billion the stimulus package proposes for clean energy projects, the Act provides for Earth sciences research to better understand the state of our planet. This includes $400 million for NASA Earth scientists and $600 million for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite equipment and climate modeling, which will be crucial for global warming mitigation and adaptation policy.

To help translate discoveries from lab to market, there are also funds that can support regional technology-based economic development: $100 million for NIST labs to coordinate manufacturing standards, and another $100 million for the Technology Innovation Program and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

As Science Progress contributors explain in several recent features on regional centers of innovation, developing prosperous regional innovation clusters yields dividends to the domestic and world economies—whether it be information technology or life-saving medical advances. Regional centers also benefit local communities by attracting a talented and high-paid workforce, cultural organizations, and start-up businesses that generate tax revenue and support the cycle of growth—all key stepping stones on the path to economic recovery.

Will Straw is the Associate Director for Economic Growth at the Center for American Progress. Andrew Plemmons Pratt is the Assistant Editor for Science Progress.

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