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It's too soon to call the economic crisis a depression, but it's not too early to learn an important lesson from the Great Depression: science is more important than ever.
Of course, giving money to scientists — or, as Sarah Palin famously put it, "research on fruit flies" — can be a tough message to sell when people are losing their jobs, homes and dreams. Done right, however, it benefits everyone — not just by creating jobs, but by shaping a better world.
"The New Deal established a new era in government-science relations," writes Stanford University historian Eric Rauchway in an essay published Wednesday in Nature. "The 1930s brought unparalleled technological progress to the nation."
During the Depression, President Roosevelt tripled research funding and took advice from the National Academy of Sciences. He sent veritable armies of researchers and engineers to the South, a region then long-neglected and undeveloped. From them came electricity, improved water management, better farming practices, erosion-preventing crops, reforestation, water quality improvements and reductions in water-borne diseases. Science pushed the region into the 20th century.
The parallels between now and then are many, and not limited to economics. Just as the South needed to be developed, much of the United States — its hospitals overcrowded and understaffed, roads clogged, economy relying on a dirty and finite fuel source — needs updating for the 21st century.
President Obama has acknowledged this. His FDR-referencing inauguration speech contained promises to "elevate science to its rightful position," provide better, cheaper medical care and "harness the winds and the sun and the soil." The $787 billion stimulus plan signed into law on Tuesday contained $21.5 billion for research and development, more than either the House or Senate wanted to give.
All this has been good news for those who say green technology will provide an economy-saving bubble, or that science funding is an easy job creation tool. But Rauchway also makes a point not often heard in discussions of government-supported science during this recession: it shouldn't be judged purely in economic terms. It's impossible to know how many jobs funding will create, and the project is ultimately about more than jobs. It's about shaping the future we'll inhabit whether or not the economy ever regains its former prosperity.
"The New Deal didn't just aim at recovery. It was aimed at reforming the society," said Rauchway. "You ended up with a different-looking country, a country better equipped to face the 20th century."
Rauchway points out that President Roosevelt supported basic research, with Works Progress Administration researchers flooding the era's journals were with highly academic papers that produced no immediate benefits. They did, however, lay the groundwork for future breakthroughs, among them a technique for developing penicillin — arguably the century's greatest invention.
But most of Roosevelt's programs focused on applications. That, said former United Kingdom science and technology minister Ian Taylor, is where emphasis needs to be now. "Particularly in a recession, we really need to show that scientists can solve problems," he said.
Science funding "isn't a job creation scheme," said Taylor. Instead, investment into applied research will provide environmental, health and energy benefits enjoyed once the recession lifts. Advances are also needed to make renewable energy cost-efficient in comparison to oil, which now sells for just a quarter of what it fetched last July.
"It's inconceivable that a world that comes out of this terrible recession is going to set climate change targets regardless of cost," said Taylor. "Technology needs to show hot it can bring the cost down."
Taylor said that when the recession ends, the United States will be forced to slash its budgets and pay off money borrowed to stimulate the economy. If scientists don't prove their worth, he said, they might no longer enjoy public largesse.
"When we come out of the recession, governments will look to cut back sharply," said Taylor. "We've got to make sure that nobody turns around to the scientists and engineers and says, 'You didn't pull your weight.'"
Citation: "How to Survive the Recession." By Jeffrey Sachs, Ian Taylor, Eric Rauchway, Atsushi Sunami, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, John Browning, Noreena Hertz, John Geanakoplos. Nature, Vol. 457, No. 7232, Feb 18., 2009.
Image: National Archives
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