Science and Surpluses
By D. Allan Bromley
When President Bush spoke to Congress and the nation on Feb. 27, he outlined three cardinal goals: a $1.6 trillion tax cut, a first-class education for every child and a restructured military that confronts emerging post- cold-war threats. The next day, he announced a budget that jeopardizes the nation's ability to achieve any of these truly laudable goals.
Both the tax cut and the spending that would support educational and military buildups depend upon an estimated $5.6 trillion surplus over the next 10 years. Where is all that money coming from? There are several sources, but the major driver of our nation's economic success is scientific innovation. And the Bush budget includes cuts, after accounting for inflation, to the three primary sources of ideas and personnel in the high-tech economy: the National Science Foundation is cut by 2.6 percent, NASA by 3.6 percent and the Department of Energy by an alarming 7.1 percent.
Economists, including Alan Greenspan, attribute much of America's 1990's boom to increased productivity stemming, in large part, from scientific research. Two simple discoveries - the transistor and the fiber optic cable - are at the root of it. Anyone skeptical of this should turn off the computer for a day and see how much work gets done.
The 21st century economy will continue to depend on scientific innovation. Economists estimate that innovation and the application of new technology have generated at least half of the phenomenal growth in America's gross domestic product since World War II. Keeping that economic source productive is critical to both national prosperity and federal revenues. (And where defense is concerned, basic scientific discovery also has a more direct role: it leads to the applied science that eventually provides advances in defense hardware.)
Technological innovation depends upon the steady flow of discoveries and trained workers generated by federal science investments in universities and national laboratories. These discoveries feed directly into the industries that drive the economy. It's a straightforward relationship: industry is attentive to immediate market pressures, and the federal government makes the investments that ensure long-term competitiveness.
The proposed cuts to scientific research are a self-defeating policy. Congress must increase the federal investment in science. No science, no surplus. It's that simple.
Ed. Note: D. Allan Bromley, Sterling Professor of the Sciences at Yale, served as Science Advisor to President Bush the elder, 1989-93, and was APS President in 1997. This article appeared in the New York Times on March 9.
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