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Senate Stimulus Proposal Could Stifle Innovation Support

Cutting science out of the stimulus bill is like killing the goose that lays the nation’s golden eggs. How else is the United States going to cut healthcare costs, reduce energy dependence and ensure sustainable security except through the waves of technological innovation that, according to the National Academies and other independent sources, have accounted for 60 percent to 80 percent of America’s economic growth in the past century?

Among the cuts to the recovery and reinvestment package that the Senate is considering today:

  • $6.6 billion in energy expenditures, including $1 billion from the Department of Energy’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs
  • $5.2 billion for prevention and wellness programs, which would save money by catching health problems early or keeping them from happening in the first place
  • $1.4 billion in funds that were slated for the beleaguered National Science Foundation

Let’s just consider the NSF, which is a marvel of funding efficiency (it invests 94 percent of its budget directly into supporting research in colleges and universities in all 50 states), but which today can afford to fund only 25 percent of the proposals that pass scientific review. At the funding level proposed by the House stimulus bill, that percentage could rise to 32 percent, about the same as it was back in 2000. But the Senate seems to want to kill that goose.

What difference would it make? One way to think about it is that each NSF grant directly creates 4 to 5 good jobs, according to government statistics. So as initially proposed by the House, NSF stimulus funding would have created nearly 13,000 jobs directly. Affiliated construction and facilities stimulus money stood to create another 12,000 jobs, for a total of 25,000 additional Americans employed.

But that is just the tip of the science-jobs multiplier-effect iceberg. Consider the $4.5 million NSF grant that went to Stanford University in 2004. Four years later, that program had morphed into Google Inc. ‘Nuff said.

Economists understand the value of investment in the physical sciences, which are the cornerstone of nuts-and-bolts technology that we all use everyday. Consider an analysis done by the Council for Chemical Research, which found that a $1 billion federal investment in chemical sciences research and development gets amplified into a $40 billion boost to the nation’s gross national product and can create or maintain 600,000 jobs. Which federal agency hands out those kinds of grants? The NSF, above all others.

Compare that kind of payoff to the proven poor track record of tax cuts as job creators. There is no contest here.

Congress knows—or at least, once knew—that science and engineering are the nation’s principal drivers of innovation and economic growth. In a nearly unanimous vote a few years ago, it passed the America COMPETES Act, which promised to double NSF’s budget over seven years. Yet year after year, appropriations have not been forthcoming. Now is the time to correct, not exacerbate, that wrong.

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