House Democrats are touting investment in science as a solution to America's economic crisis. "If you want to know our agenda for this new Congress, remember four words: science, science, science and science," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Monday.
Pelosi spoke after a meeting at Princeton University, where she met with five other House Democrats and prominent American researchers to discuss the future of U.S. innovation. "We stand by [science] as the most important investment we can make in the health, the education, the energy independence, the job creation and the defense of America," the Speaker said. See the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008.
The Princeton meeting came out of talks between Pelosi and the president of the university, drawing together scientists and administrators from business, academia and other research organizations. But people who sat in on the panel which was not open to the general public said that researchers and lawmakers discussed why and how to improve U.S. research and development, as well as the link between innovation and prosperity. Attendees included high-level representatives of Intel, Merck, the American Chemical Society, the Association of American Universities and the National Academy of Engineering.
Although the panel did not hammer out specific policy details, New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt (who is also a plasma physicist) says Democrats are keen to push ahead on earlier proposals to improve teacher training in math, science and engineering, and to expand broadband Internet access nationwide.
They also suggested the government's role in spurring scientific innovation should include improving infrastructure from labs to computer networks and making long-term funding commitments to researchers. "Funding for science is so shaky, scientists themselves end up being risk-averse," says Holt a lack of certainty that he feels tends to stifle innovation.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Monday's meeting is simply the change in political tone as a new U.S. Administration prepares to take charge. George W. Bush, throughout his presidency, has been roundly criticized for ignoring, often hindering, science particularly on climate change, as the President was seen as failing to act against greenhouse-gas emissions long after most U.S. scientists had concluded that global warming was indeed man-made. Many scientists were also dismayed by Bush's ban on funding for most embryonic stem cell research and his endorsement of intelligent design being taught in schools alongside evolution, despite the prevailing view among scientists that intelligent design is not a scientific theory, since it cannot produce testable hypotheses.
President-elect Barack Obama seems to share this dissatisfaction, promising in speeches that he will reverse some of Bush's policies and otherwise make scientific research a priority. Whatever that may mean practically, scientists are no doubt eager to take advantage of the changing mood, and panelists and Congressional representatives made their case Monday that basic research is not a luxury to be indulged during good times, but in fact a main driver of economic growth.
"I suspect the people who, years ago, were working on quantum mechanics never had in mind that they would provide the BlackBerry, the cell phone, my iPod or what have you," said Norman Augustine, a former president and CEO of security firm Lockheed Martin, who attended Monday's meeting in Princeton. But today, he says, that research has paved the way for work in manufacturing, maintenance, marketing and sales a clear sign that the benefits of basic science extend beyond the lab. "This is about jobs, and it's about jobs for everyone," Augustine said.