Rebuilding Science Infrastructure Would Create Jobs, Keep U.S. Competitive

By Michael S. Lubell

NSLSCourtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) in Brookhaven, New York

Putting Americans to work building roads and bridges can help a flagging economy, but some analysts caution that many projects could take up to 18 months to get started. Beginning to rebuild America’s science infrastructure not only can be done faster and provide jobs for factory and construction workers now, but it can also put our nation on a 21st century innovation path that will keep America competitive for decades to come.

For years, we have been under-investing in our university laboratories and national scientific user facilities. Research equipment is obsolete and buildings are in disrepair. As a result, we are no longer attracting the best and brightest students to careers in science and engineering. Europe and Asia are getting ready to eat our innovation lunch.

Lack of financing has forced many cutting-edge projects at our universities and national laboratories to be shelved, even though they have been fully designed and are ready to go right now. Giving them the dollars they require will create more than 15,000 jobs directly and at least 25,000 in the aggregate, most of them in the manufacturing and construction sectors, which have been hit hard by layoffs.

Getting blue-collar workers working again will boost consumer spending and ease the nation’s economic ills. Rebuilding our scientific infrastructure will boost our technological capacity and spur economic growth.  

Drawing connections between blue-collar jobs and science spending may sound odd, but it’s easy to do. Here are just a few examples involving three key federal agencies: the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Science and Technology and the National Science Foundation.

Among its mandates, the Energy Department has responsibility for designing, building and operating major scientific user facilities. The National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in New York State is one of them. For more than 25 years, it has provided extraordinary opportunities for researchers from industry and universities to push the technological envelope and probe scientific frontiers, from studies of breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease to improvements in solar cells and computer memory.

But the facility is no longer state-of-the-art, and it needs to be replaced. The design and engineering of its successor, the NSLS-II, was completed in 2007, but groundbreaking and construction have been delayed for lack of federal funds. If Congress appropriates the $82 million the project needs to move forward, almost 1,000 manufacturing and construction jobs could be created within 120 days.

The global fusion energy project, ITER, offers an unusual opportunity to create jobs in the Rust Belt. Although the United States entered into an international agreement to participate in ITER, which is being constructed in France, Congress thus far has failed to provide the money required for our nation to meet its obligations. High on the U.S. priority list is $89 million worth of stainless steel, beryllium and other metals that Mid-western industries could supply, providing 1,000 jobs in an area of the country that is suffering most.

In all, the Energy Department has more than $1.1 billion in projects sitting in the funding queue. Financing them would directly generate more than 10,000 jobs.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has more than $67 million in construction projects ready for a funding go-ahead and more than $100 million in “green” manufacturing partnerships waiting for congressional appropriations. More than 1,000 jobs hang in the balance.

Finally, the National Science Foundation, which supports a large fraction of our nation’s university based research, has more than $200 million in requests for science instrumentation that it would like to fund but cannot. Add $120 million for the Alaska Region Research Vessel, which would employ idle American shipyard workers, and more than 3,000 unemployed people would be put to work.

At a time when Washington is spending $700 billion to prop up Wall Street and is preparing to inject another $500 billion as an economic stimulus, committing $1.5 billion to science infrastructure is not too much for Congress and the White House to consider.