Democratic Leadership and Obama on Importance of Science and Technology to the Economy

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Publication date: 
15 January 2009

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) made clear her views on the importance of science, technology, and innovation to the nation's economic well-being at a forum of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee last week.  Said Pelosi: "We all know that in business or in science or in education, capital attracts talent.  You have to have the labs.  And talent attracts capital.  And so we want to make very wise investments in this recovery package so it is about innovation."

The forum, as described by its co-chair, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), was directed by Speaker Pelosi to receive testimony about the state of the economy and "the need for [a] comprehensive economic recovery package, in order to create jobs and help rebuild our economy." "It is vital that in the first days of this Congress, Members be briefed on the latest developments in our economy and the components that may be included in an economic recovery package or need to be included in an economic recovery package," said Miller.  There was considerable interest in the forum, as evidenced by the more than 100 Democratic representatives who were in the audience.

The participants invited to sit on both sides of the forum's witness table are indicative of the key role that science, technology and innovation play in the approach of the Democratic leadership.  Joining Speaker Pelosi, Miller, and the forum's other co-chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) were the chairs of the Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Budget, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Science and Technology committees. Explained Miller: "the speaker has asked that the . . . chairs of the committees that are most heavily impacted by the consideration of the economic recovery act be here today."

Two of the five witnesses were from the science and technology community: Norman Augustine, chair of the National Academies' committee that wrote "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" and Professor Maria Zuber, Head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT.  Said Zuber, "The fact that scientists, engineers and educators are sitting side by side with economists to chart the country's path forward highlights the recognition by the Congress that innovation rooted in scientific and technological advances represents the key to sustained, long-term economic growth."

The Democratic leadership is taking a two-pronged approach in the economic stimulus bill.  As described by Miller, "First, it must be able to create jobs and get millions of Americans back to work quickly.  But it also must provide for the long-term recovery of the American economy in a modern, globalized world.  Second, it must spur long-term economic development, strengthening our competitiveness by investing in science, education, health care, energy, job training and additional aid for college-bound students."

Both Augustine and Zuber reflected this approach in their testimony.  Augustine described  problems in STEM education, research funding, and the S&T workforce, and concluded that the legislation must "help the economy in the short-term, which we certainly must do, but we also must companion that with some actions to fix these underlying problems in our economy.  Otherwise, the jobs that we create will be lost to foreign competition in the longer term."  Zuber testified that "there are significant structural problems in the economy right now.  They're not likely to be cyclical, and jobs that are lost now may not be coming back.  We need to grow our way out of this problem.  What we need to do is put in elements that stimulate real, sustained growth in the economy, and we'll do this by the creation of new knowledge.  We need to bolster existing high-growth innovation areas, and we need to create new areas."    Zuber suggested that new energy technology was one of those areas, and said "ARPA-E[nergy] would be a very, very compelling and attractive mechanism . . . for taking the most promising of these [technologies] and bringing them quickly to market."   She also advocated greater spending on innovation infrastructure, such as research instrumentation at universities, and science and technology fellowships.  Another of the forum's witnesses, Robert Reich, who is a former Secretary of Labor and now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley,  spoke highly of supporting educational infrastructure, calling its payoff "extraordinarily high."

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), echoing a theme he stressed at a Capitol briefing in December spoke of using stimulus funding for "moving the economy forward now and also laying the foundation for the 21st century."  As an example, he cited the funding of ARPA-E, a position supported by Augustine and Zuber.  Gordon also spoke of the importance of funding the America COMPETES Act, citing a letter signed by 250 people in the business, academia, and research communities that stated "It's an urgent and necessary step that will enhance our country's economic strength and competitiveness."

Of note were Miller's concluding remarks.  He spoke of the stimulus bill dealing with "the immediate and the urgent," but also of providing "the foundation for long-term support of discovery and innovation and a new generation of jobs."  Miller discussed "investment in the labs and the scientific infrastructure in this country from which a huge amount of economic growth came since the 1960s."  He elaborated on his thinking by described himself as "heartbroken" when he learned  a number of years ago that experiments at the physics lab at the University of California at Berkeley were canceled "because the rain was coming through the roof."

President-Elect Obama views investment in science, technology and innovation as important components of the nation's economy.  In a speech given at George Mason University last week, he offered the following comments:

"It's not just another public works program. It's a plan that recognizes both the paradox and promise of this moment: the fact that there are millions of Americans trying to find work, even as all around the country there's so much work to be done.

"And that's why we'll invest in priorities like energy and education, health care and a new infrastructure that are necessary to keep us strong and competitive in the 21st century. . . . "

"To finally spark the creation of a clean energy economy, we will double the production of alternative energy in the next three years. We will modernize more than 75 percent of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of two million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills.

"In the process, we will put Americans to work in new jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced, jobs building solar panels and wind turbines, constructing fuel-efficient cars and buildings, and developing the new energy technologies that will lead to even more jobs, more savings, and a cleaner, safer planet in the bargain.

" To give our children the chance to live out their dreams in a world that's never been more competitive, we will equip tens of thousands of schools, community colleges, and public universities with 21st-century classrooms, labs, and libraries. We'll provide new computers, new technology, and new training for teachers so that students in Chicago and Boston can compete with children in Beijing for the high-tech, high-wage jobs of the future.

"To build an economy that can lead this future, we will begin to rebuild America. Yes, we'll put people to work repairing crumbling roads, bridges and schools, by eliminating the backlog of well- planned, worthy, and needed infrastructure projects, but we'll also do more to retrofit America for a global economy.

"That means updating the way we get our electricity, by starting to build a new smart grid that will save us money, protect our power sources from blackout or attack, and deliver clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation.

"It means expanding broadband lines across America so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world.

"It means investing in the science, research, and technology that will lead to new medical breakthroughs, new discoveries, and entire new industries."

The approach taken by President-Elect Obama and the  Democratic congressional leadership is supported by their actions.  The House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. David Obey (D-WI), just released a summary of the $825 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009.  "The package contains targeted efforts in . . . Transforming our Economy with Science and Technology" the summary explained.  FYI #4 will contain excerpts from the committee's 13-page summary of this legislation.

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