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Could Science Pep Up A Sluggish Economy?

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Could Science Pep Up A Sluggish Economy?


Could Science Pep Up A Sluggish Economy?

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You're listening to Science Friday on NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, the future of research and innovation. In the shadow of all the presidential fanfare, one House committee after the next has been scrutinizing that $800 billion economic stimulus package in preparation for next week, when it's scheduled to hit the House floor. Here's how the U.S. speaker, Nancy Pelosi, described the Congress' priorities for the stimulus package in an interview last week on Morning Edition.

(Soundbite of NPR's Morning Edition)

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): If you want four words to describe this - science, science, science and science - the science, technology and engineering to build the infrastructure for the future, the science for the innovation to keep us competitive and number one in the world markets. This is not your - our grandfather's public works program of the '30s.

FLATOW: It certainly is not. She's talking about carbon capture, smart-grid technology, battery research, shiny new labs, biomedical research - you name it. And there are millions or billions of dollars dedicated to it in the stimulus package. But will it really give a jolt to the economy? Joining me now to talk about the science spending are my guests, Rush Holt, former plasma physicist and the congressional representative for New Jersey's 12th district, based in West Windsor, New Jersey. He joins on the phone from New Jersey. Welcome back to Science Friday, Congressman.

Representative RUSH HOLT (Democrat, New Jersey): It's always good to be with you, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you. Maria Zuber is the professor of geophysics and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science at MIT, and she joins us from a studio there on the campus. Welcome back to the show, Dr. Zuber.

Dr. MARIA ZUBER (Head, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Thanks, Ira. Thanks for inviting me back.

FLATOW: Congressman Holt, we keep hearing about, if you watch the talk show, they talk about shovel-ready projects - stimulus. These are not what we would call shovel-ready, whatever that term means.

Rep. HOLT: Well, it's - science research, I'm pleased to say, is getting a good hearing these days.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Rep. HOLT: You referred to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. She asked for, and we put together at Princeton University last December, a roundtable with industrial people, academic people, practicing scientists and so forth and talked about what should be the role of research and development. We scheduled it months ago, but at the time it took place, we were really facing this severe economic crisis, and all the talk was how can we stimulate the economy? What can the government do to get companies involved? And what came out of this discussion was that science - science spending - research and development - actually has some immediate, short-term and some mid-term economic effect, as well as the kind of - the long-term effect that we've always talked about. We've always talked about how research led to lasers and to MRI imaging and super precise atomic clocks led to the GPS system and so forth. Scientists have been reluctant to claim or to even talk about short-term economic benefit. I mean, we didn't want to be seen like just another interest group.

But the economists now recognize that there is real economic benefit in hiring lab techs and hiring electricians to wire the labs and do all those things. And so, there is probably $15 to $16 billion in the economic recovery package that is currently under consideration in Congress for what you would call research and development - and this is beyond, oh, improving the electric grid to have more reliable electricity. It's beyond putting in place existing technologies for broadband connections of digital circuits and that sort of thing. It really is research and development, and that will - that has not only some short-term stimulus, but it has of course, the kind of long-term - the innovation that leads to long-term economic productivity.

FLATOW: Dr. Zuber, you said at that conference in Princeton last month that we need to create new areas of innovation. What kinds of new areas are you talking about?

Dr. ZUBER: Well, the kinds of areas that we would look at - the example that I focused on, because it's a priority of the president's administration, was in the area of energy. But there are many areas also. So for example, solar cells - increasing the efficiency of solar cells, factors that one could look at in carbon capture in sequestration. Imagine, for example, that you could teach a machine to do what plants do naturally, and that's take sunlight and carbon dioxide and create oxygen out of them, to solve our carbon problem. There are a variety of other factors, too, such as using sunlight to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen, which produces hydrogen fuel. Some of these have been demonstrated in the laboratory, and there's a question of just how scale-up-able are they, to contribute to our energy questions.

FLATOW: And if you're speaking about energy and if we're talking about electric cars and plug in societies, I would imagine some of this work has to go into batteries or other kinds of storage devices - fuel cells - where we have to store and move the electricity around.

Dr. ZUBER: Yes, well, certainly electric cars - hybrid cars are - there's a lot of talk about them in the future, and if we move to a situation where we have now, where we're depending on foreign oil, and instead, move to a situation where we have electric cars, where we're buying the batteries from foreign countries, then are we really any better off than we are now? And China, Korea, Japan are all investing billions in battery technology, and we need to do this also to be competitive.

FLATOW: Congressman Holt, is there going to be enough money here to kick-start an economy, using these new technology incentives?

Rep. HOLT: Well, I mean, if you look at the rightful place and it's - I choose that word very deliberately, because on Tuesday of this week, President Obama, in his inaugural address, said, we will restore science to its rightful place, and he put that in a passage of his speech when he was talking about the new foundations for growth - economic growth. If indeed we're going to put science in the rightful place, it would be many tens of billions of dollars. So, I actually think that this economic recovery package that's going through Congress is probably too small, but it's considerably larger than ever would have been considered in past years. There seems to be a change in attitude about science here that I see among political leaders, certainly in the president. President Obama did not need to say that in his address. He chose to put that in there.

And so, there are really some very promising signs. And let me - on what Dr. Zuber said - and you know, she was a participant in this roundtable - let me point out that some of what's in this economic so-called stimulus package, the economic recovery and revitalization, are applications of existing technology. I mean weatherization of homes, extending the grid. There will be money for battery manufacturing, and I'm not counting that, that kind of thing, in this $15 or so billion of research and development. That really is the kind of research that we need for sustained long-term economic growth.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. GM is planning to build a huge car-battery lab in Michigan, is it not?

Rep. HOLT: I believe that's true. I don't have the details of that, and there will probably be grants and loan guarantees for domestic manufacturing of advanced batteries.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Rep. HOLT: But there will also be some research funding for development of, you know, new ideas in batteries.

FLATOW: Dr. Zuber, do you look toward a basic research getting more money here?

Dr. ZUBER: Well, certainly, basic research should be a part of it. There really needs to be a two-pronged approach in this. We need to very much stimulate the economy in the near term, and there also needs to be a longer-term aspect to it. Now, an example of something where you can do both in a way is, you know, I raised the issue of research instrumentation and infrastructure for universities. Now, many private companies have scaled down, in terms of their internal research because of the drive towards quarterly profits. So, we're counting on universities for both basic and applied research, but university labs have not kept up in terms of being state of the art.

So, there are programs in place in the NSF, where the proposals have already been reviewed. And in some cases, these programs are underfunded by a factor of four for just the very highest rated proposals. So, one could buy research equipment and instrumentation for universities to invest in those labs, which would, you know, stimulate the economy in the short term, would train students in using high-technology precision devices, would allow you to hire technicians and then would create the base of knowledge that we need to move forward in the future as we try to innovate our way and stay in front.

Rep. HOLT: And Ira, if I may jump in here...


Rep. HOLT: Much of these can be done quickly. I mean, there's $1 billion or $2 billion of NSF grant proposals that have been rated as excellent, but not funded for lack of money. There are labs that - you know, for which the upgrade plans already exist. It's just a matter of hiring the electricians, the machinists and the others that are necessary to put it in place. So, there - much of this is - you know, we don't use the phrase "shovel-ready."


Rep. HOLT: But much of it is ready to stimulate the economy. And of course, the ideal project is one that keeps on giving, not that keeps on requiring money to sustain it, but gives the innovation that keeps on giving back to society.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right...

Dr. ZUBER: And a key issue here really is also that these were all - you know, these proposals that exist in the system right now were all peer-reviewed and can be competitively selected.

FLATOW: Yeah, it's interesting, you know, because we're not - as Nancy Pelosi says, this is not the project of the '30s, I guess, and so reference the kinds of projects like the Hover Dam and things like that. Those are real shovel-ready jobs. But this is - a lot of this is an investment, and investments may take years to show some results.

Rep. HOLT: Sure, that's right. Now, some of the transportation projects are important for our economy, too. I mean, a more efficient transportation of goods can be an economic benefit. But it's no worthy that there is - what's in there for science research is of a similar order of magnitude to what's in there for roads and bridges, and that's a change, and you know, not to denigrate roads and bridges, but it's a recognition that science is, in the words of the new science adviser in this administration, in President Obama's administration, the centrality of science - it's a recognition, as John Holdren said, of the centrality of science.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get...

Rep. HOLT: That's good.

FLATOW: A quick phone call in. Russell in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Russell.

RUSSELL (Caller): Hello. There is a way in which we can accomplish some of the things that are being discussed here, and we have a very good historical case supporting this. The idea is to have the government support science by doing it in government laboratories, where the results are in the public domain, and as soon as the results comes out, it's grabbed up by industry and exploited. This is what happened to us a half century go when we built the first computer in America at the National Bureau of Standards inside a government laboratory. And needless to say, immediately everybody grabbed it because everything we did was in the public domain, and consequently, we have this giant industry today. Another such example was when I made the world's first digital image in 1957, a half century ago. And of course, again, that was in the public domain since it was done at the National Bureau of Standards and everybody exploited it. So, today, you have the digital computer laboratories who have cameras, satellite photography and all that sort of stuff, which resulted from the government supplying scientific results, not just money to science.

FLATOW: Let me get a reaction - and let me remind everybody that this is Science Friday on NPR News.

Rep. HOLT: It's worth pointing out that in this very package, economic package, that I was talking about, there's hundreds of millions of dollars for NIST, the successor to the Bureau of Standards, for construction of research buildings, but also for coordination of research efforts. And you can say this - and it's repeated over and over, for the Geological Survey, for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Much of this will be through government labs, much of it will be through universities, which in many cases it will be available on the public domain, and some of it will be to stimulate private research.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I have just about a minute or so left. How much somebody packs us of - Infinity asks from Second Life, and it's a good question - are there any plans for using this money to subsidize higher education in science, pay tuition for students to go into science fields?

Rep. HOLT: Yes, certainly, in the, as I mentioned, National Science Foundation before. A lot of support for students goes through the National Science Foundation. Now, elsewhere in kind of a none science sense, there's a lot of money in this economic stimulus package for other things that we talked about at the Princeton Roundtable, such as professional development for teachers, environmental restoration. I haven't been talking about this here, but of course, this does have a, at least, indirect benefit to the scientific enterprise.

FLATOW: What are the chances this bill will pass as is through Congress?

Rep. HOLT: Pretty good, pretty good. I mean, there will be - I think everyone agrees there's a role for the government in stimulating the economy. There's just too much money missing in circulation, because consumers aren't consuming, because credit institutions aren't loaning and so forth. So, there will be hundreds of billions of dollars of federal money injected in to the economy. And the science part of that seems to be pretty well inserted there, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made it clear that she intend for that stay there. And the new administration has, I think, shown also that they intend for it to stay in there.

FLATOW: Well, I've never heard the speaker of the House ever say the word science for times in one sentence. So, there is some hope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

Rep. HOLT: Thank you, Ira.

Dr. ZUBER: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Rush, you're welcome. Rush Holt is a former...

Rep. HOLT: Good to be with you, Maria.

Dr. ZUBER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Plasma physicist and the representative from New Jersey's 12th district. And Maria Zuber is the Griswold professor of geophysics and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about, well, we talk about the future of science. What about the future of space and missions to the Moon that president Bush had sent us on? Are we still going there? What about competition from the Chinese? Competition from the Indians? We're all talking about going to the Moon. Are we in the mood for another space race? Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News.

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