Shovel-Ready Science?

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Science  27 Mar 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5922, pp. 1646
DOI: 10.1126/science.1173327

It is gratifying to see the funding for scientific research in the U.S. economic stimulus package, a critical short-term investment which must be spent over 2 years. Yet at the risk of sounding ungrateful and skeptical, it is worth sounding a note of caution. Transformative change requires long-term investment in the nation's intellectual infrastructure. “Shovel-ready” makes sense for getting people to work on deferred infrastructure needs, but how does it relate to the scientific research and education programs needed to address the many challenges looming before us?

Long-term research and education provide innovative, creative discoveries that spur transformative change. The United States needs to start making the down payment on this exploration, knowing that the needed breakthroughs cannot be generated within the next 2 years. As science funding agencies begin awarding their one-time money, they must be mindful of the sustainability of their programs. The recent signing of the fiscal year 2009 omnibus bill with its 4.7% increase for agencies funding science and technology R&D is a welcome sign. Maintaining that momentum in the coming years will be essential.


The urgency to stimulate the economy is understandable, but there are risks in not effectively using the funds that have suddenly become available. Here it is useful to consider the U.S. commitment to supporting scientific research and education, which arguably began after Vannevar Bush's persuasive work Science: The Endless Frontier. In a letter to President Roosevelt in 1945, Bush wrote: “Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.” We are still benefiting from this foresight. As noted in the U.S. National Academies 2007 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, as much as 85% of the nation's economic growth has arisen from advances in science and technology. A pioneering spirit and progressive investments such as those in the current stimulus plan are as essential today as they were in 1945.

Reaping the benefits of investments in research takes time (see the Beyond Discovery series by the U.S. National Academies). Frequently, research fails to take the expected path or create the obvious solution, and the most critical results may not become evident for years. Witness the development of medical technologies such as laser surgery, computer-aided tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging, which resulted from decades of fundamental research on stimulated emission, accelerator physics, and nuclear magnetic resonance. These transformative medical technologies emerged as unexpected benefits of fundamental physics, chemistry, and molecular structure research. Thus, one cannot expect shovel-ready science to solve today's problems; long-term fundamental research develops the understanding and discoveries that will help us confront tomorrow's challenges.

One risk of haste is that short-term investments are neither sustainable nor sufficient to achieve the desired goals. The superconducting supercollider, Star Wars, and crash programs such as the “war on cancer” fell short of their audacious goals. Yet a nation's goals should be daring, because the world faces many urgent challenges, such as those highlighted last year by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/). Its 14 “Grand Challenges” range from developing new medicines, to providing clean water around the world, to developing new energy sources. We must address each of these challenges with a long-term view, a pioneering spirit, and sustainable support for the bold innovative research that will be needed for ultimate success.

Now is the time to renew the U.S. commitment to research. The scientific community and funding agencies must ensure that our political leaders and the public understand how shovel-ready programs of rebuilding differ from the long-term research that drives innovation. Let's take the time needed to make sure we get this right.

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