The Back Page: Investing in Science Leads to a Stronger Economy

By U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT-3rd) 

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT-3rd)

Rosa DeLauro (CT-3rd)

Today’s economy weighs heavily on America’s families. Incomes are flat, while everything else goes up–gas prices, food prices, the cost of health care and education. Today with almost no margin for error, we have a responsibility to make the long-term investment in our economy, so families and businesses will have the room they need to survive and succeed down the road.

That means developing the new technologies that create new jobs through our innovation industries, America’s economic backbone. If we want to make opportunity real for more Americans–if we want to keep our nation strong and competitive even as our new economy continues to change–there is no better way to do it than by investing in science, research, and technology.

It begins with an investment in our human capital. After all, in the future our nation’s economic success will ultimately depend on its ability to consistently produce a highly skilled workforce. Unfortunately, many Americans are not prepared to be a part of that workforce or to move beyond the entry level employment.

In my state, Connecticut, only 60 percent of adults have adequate literacy skills to function effectively in the workplace. And 32 percent of employers report that poor reading and writing skills are among the most serious skill deficiencies of currently hourly production employees. Those facts represent a real systemic failure within our society and we simply should not accept it. As employers, we cannot afford it and as a larger community, our economy cannot sustain it. Our conscience should not either.

The American people recognize how closely tied access to a quality education is to our economic prosperity. It is time our public policy did as well. We need to revamp our focus on the STEM fields –science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And there is no doubt that our universities and community colleges have a big role to play in increasing support for scientific research and encouraging young scientists and researchers to pursue high-risk/high-reward research. Across the board, from manufacturing to high tech, American competitiveness will only be as strong as our institutions of higher learning.

At the same time we must take steps to keep our economy and its businesses competitive in the years ahead. Last summer, Congress passed the America COMPETES ACT to do just that, establishing the Advanced Research Projects-Agency (ARPA-E) to engage in those high-risk, high-reward energy research projects under the Department of Energy.

These are effective initiatives on their own–but they also represent a broader policy which says we must use our federal government’s resources and leadership as a catalyst to spur growth, bolster our economy, and maintain America’s position as a global economic leader. We want to strengthen our workforce today and make sure it is the world’s best and brightest tomorrow. We want a bold national policy that genuinely values science.

Economic experts have concluded that science-driven technology has accounted for more than 50 percent of the growth of the U.S. economy during the last half-century. We have a responsibility to continue investing in that science so that in pays still more dividends in the century ahead. That is why the House Democrats’ Innovation Agenda calls for a doubling of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science budgets over the next 10 years.

Yet, despite overwhelming support for that goal, reaffirmed by higher funding levels included in the America COMPETES Act, we still face an uphill battle in delivering much needed resources. This past year with a new majority, we fought for increased funding. But the president’s veto threat led to an end-of-the-year funding package where the Department of the Energy’s Office of Science funding failed to receive significant new money–even falling short of meeting the rate of inflation.

As a result, hundreds of scientists were furloughed or laid off, critical science facilities had to reduce their research, and American involvement in key international science projects has been compromised. We feel the consequences in both the public and private sector, and if we continue to short fund this kind of important science, the generations that follow will be forced to pay the price.

I will continue working to put us back on the path to doubling our investment in science over the next ten years. That means $7.3 billion for the National Science Foundation and $4.7 billion for the Office of Science for fiscal year 2009.

When we fulfilled a similar promise, doubling the National Institutes of Health budget, from 1998 to 2003, the transformation was remarkable and impact was tangible. We can do the same when it comes to basic scientific research. We know the challenges–but we also know the potential. It starts with making our case to our colleagues–to lawmakers and stakeholders–that the power and impact of research and development are not fantasy. They are very real and very much in our sights.

No where is that more clear than in our work to achieve energy independence. Getting there will require, first and foremost, a broad and growing base of academic, scientific, and technological knowledge, responding to the demands for more efficiency and smarter technology for our cars, homes, businesses, and industry. And it will mean investing in our communities and plugging their resources and workforce into vibrant, expanding markets.

With energy prices soaring, Americans are concerned and they believe higher prices lie ahead. That–combined with a new consciousness about climate change–has fostered a national urgency to move away from our dependence on oil. So change is possible but there are plenty of obstacles to good policy outcomes. Our real challenge is creating an environment where research is supported, private investment can thrive and the government can lead.

Last December, in the Congress we passed the Energy Independence and Security Act to make investments across the spectrum, to promote renewable energy, grow our economy, create new jobs, lower energy prices, and begin to address global warming. It is an ambitious initiative, to be sure, but nothing less will secure our nation’s energy future. It is time to stop talking about energy independence, and start moving toward it.

A 2006 study from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) identified the shortage of skills and training as a leading barrier to renewable energy and energy efficiency growth. It pointed to critical unmet training needs, including lack of reliable installation and maintenance services as well as the failure of our educational system to provide adequate training in new technologies. And so, because American know-how and ingenuity should be a source of growth not an obstacle to it, we authorized $125 million to establish national and state job training programs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency fields, training a quality workforce for “green” collar jobs–such as solar panel manufacturer and green building construction workers.

No matter what great national challenges we face, today and on the horizon–whether it is energy security, health care reform, or some test we cannot even yet imagine–there is no doubt that groundbreaking science will be integral. Our response must not only be practical and effective. It must also reflect our priorities, as a nation that meets its obligations, values science, and believes in the power of making the once-impossible possible.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT 3rd)serves as the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies, as well as the vice-chair of the House Budget Committee.

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