Fixing the economy the scientific way

Jan 03, 2011 By Meryl Comer and Chris Mooney

Here are two facts that might seem unrelated: (1) Most Americans cannot name a living scientist. (2) Over the last two years, by far the most pressing problems in the country have been the economy and the cost of health care (a chief concern of President Obama's deficit commission).

What if we told you solving the first will help us fix the second?

Without ramping up our investments in science and research - a matter barely on the public's radar in a country where 65 percent of the citizens can't name a living scientist and an additional 18 percent try but get it wrong - we'll be hobbled in trying to fix our long-term economic problems. That's because science creates jobs, and it can also reduce health care costs related to the aging of the population.

Take jobs first: This has been a theme hammered home by the . In its two "Gathering Storm" reports released in recent years, the academy has argued strongly that our future prosperity depends on investments made now in research and innovation.

The basic premise rests on the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow, who documented that advances in and knowledge drove U.S. economic growth in the first half of the 20th century. If it was true then, it's even more so in today's information .

Consider the economic reverberations of dramatically increasing the capacity of the microchip. As the academy unforgettably put it: "It enabled entrepreneurs to replace tape recorders with iPods, maps with GPS, pay phones with cellphones, two-dimensional X-rays with three-dimensional CT scans, paperbacks with electronic books, slide rules with computers, and much, much more."

It's dramatic testimony to the economic power of . And yet over the four decades from 1964 to 2004, our government's support of science declined 60 percent as a part of GDP. Meanwhile, other countries aren't holding back: China is now the world leader in investing in clean energy, which will surely be one of the industries of the future. Overall, China invested $34.6 billion in the sector in 2009; the U.S. invested $18.6 billion.

But it's not just that science creates the next jobs. At the same time, it can also save society a fortune in shared costs that weigh down the federal budget.

Health economists and demographers, surveying the steady aging of the U.S. population, are predicting a dramatic rise in the cost of dealing with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, which already accounts for $172 billion in total spending annually. That number is projected to climb to more than $1 trillion by 2050 as legions of baby boomers reach the age of onset and the population generally ages. Meanwhile, our annual federal Medicare expenditure on Alzheimer's is projected to increase from $88 billion today to $627 billion, far exceeding the current total Medicare budget (about $468 billion this year).

There's just one hope here: scientific advances that will slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease and ultimately uncover a cure. But, ironically, the prospects for scientists who seek federal dollars to study the disease are among the worst in the entire government science infrastructure. The National Institute on Aging, which supports most of this work, is now turning down more than 90 percent of scientifically meritorious research grant proposals due to an inability to finance them.

As Alzheimer's researcher Sam Gandy of Mount Sinai Medical Center puts it: "Many well-known Alzheimer's scientists of my generation recognize that we have reached the end of an era. We can no longer, in good conscience, recommend that our trainees plan for a career in Alzheimer's research unless they can establish their first labs in China, Korea, Europe, Australia or South America."

So much for heeding the advice of philanthropist Mary Lasker, who used to remark, "If you think research is expensive, try disease!"

In light of all this, it's scarcely believable that the ascendant Republicans, in their "Pledge to America," are calling for a reduction in federal spending on nondefense-related science research to pre-stimulus levels. The National Institutes of Health could see its budget dip to $28.5 billion in such a scenario, a 9.1 percent decline - and that's just one research agency. Others, like the National Science Foundation, could also be at risk.

In this context, who stands up for research? Publically funded scientists and their institutes have to remain politically neutral. Meanwhile, most Americans don't even know a living scientist's name, and think of Bill Gates and Al Gore as scientific role models.

We need to change our culture to honor our scientists - to rescue them from the funding upheavals that cut short their efforts to bring us life-saving therapies, treatments and devices that transform our lives and the way we work. And we need to recognize that the cost of basic science, and the time it takes, require a sustained government commitment because industry can't be relied on to fund incremental and high-risk science for its own sake without any guarantee of a payoff.

As Charles Darwin's great-great grandson Matthew Chapman, a Hollywood screenwriter, says: "Instead of being derided as geeks or nerds, scientists should be seen as courageous realists and the last great heroic explorers of the unknown. They should get more money, more publicity, better clothes, more sex and free rehab when the fame goes to their heads."

That's pretty funny - but our problems aren't.

Explore further: Insider trading study shows stronger enforcement

More information: Meryl Comer, president of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer's Initiative, is executive producer of the Rock Stars of Science campaign (www.rockstarsofscience.org). Chris Mooney is the co-author of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future." They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

4.3 /5 (16 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Republicans could scale back US science budgets

Nov 10, 2010

Budgets for scientific research in the United States could be scaled back with the return of a Republican-majority in Congress as conservatives aim to slash spending to reduce the ballooning deficit.

Study shows health care spending spurs economic growth

Dec 14, 2009

As the national discussion of health care focuses on costs, a new study from North Carolina State University shows that it might be more accurate to think of health care spending as an investment that can spur economic growth. ...

Basic research critical to America's economic recovery

Feb 11, 2009

The Science Coalition (TSC) today urged Congress to move swiftly to pass economic recovery legislation that includes strong funding for key science agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department ...

Obama vows return to US science prominence (Update)

Apr 27, 2009

President Barack Obama pledged Monday to return the United States to a "high water mark" of scientific achievement, announcing a goal to commit three percent of GDP to research and development.

The Scientific State of the Union

Jan 29, 2010

The guest list for Wednesday night's State of the Union address included two young but elite members of the scientific community. High school students Li Boynton and Gabriela Farfan spent the school night ...

Recommended for you

Insider trading study shows stronger enforcement

9 hours ago

The first major study of the enforcement of Australia's insider trading laws has shown the number of insider trading cases brought by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) is increasing, ...

The unexpected benefits of adjustable rate mortgages

Oct 22, 2014

Using loan level data matched to consumer credit records, researchers have been able to determine that a reduction in mortgage payments of as little as $150 a month spurred a reduction in mortgage defaults and an increase ...

Migrant employment on the rise

Oct 20, 2014

Skilled migrants are enjoying better jobs and higher levels of employment thanks to a shift in policy, according to a new study by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University ...

User comments : 31

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

digitaltrails
4.5 / 5 (4) Jan 03, 2011
This article is arguing against the direction of favoured political ideology - fix the political ideology and maybe the science funding will follow.
Decimatus
2.3 / 5 (6) Jan 04, 2011
The article seems to think that the US government will ever be able to afford paying for it's citizens immortality.

I have an idea. Instead of waiting for the next miracle cure, why don't we just tell people to be realistic about their expectations for end-of-life treatment.

No, we can't afford to give you whatever treatment you want or think you deserve. We can't afford it. If you want to live forever, pay for it yourself. If you didn't start saving for this at a young age, tough cookies.

We can take the savings gained by scrapping socialized health care, and properly educate and care for our children so that they may secure their own future and not be overburdened by their parent's legacies.
Ethelred
3.2 / 5 (5) Jan 04, 2011
The article seems to think that the US government will ever be able to afford paying for it's citizens immortality.
You seem to have read a different article than the one this page. Its about spending money were it will improve economy. Not just on medical research.

And the other silly thing you said

Immortality.

Nice idea, we may even manage it. In my lifetime and I am 59. BUT there has to be research and the drug companies aren't doing it. Neither is the government. We don't need actual immortality to achieve major cost savings in medicine. Extending life a decade or two as WORKING people would cut medical costs per year per person considerably.
If you want to live forever, pay for it yourself.
Stupid that is. If people live forever or just a lot longer they don't have to pay as much for end of life care as a percentage of their total income.

Ethelred
rgwalther
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 04, 2011
As soon as the wealthy can afford emergent immortality, anything that stands in their way will be exterminated, legally or otherwise.
'It's a brave new world'.
CSharpner
4 / 5 (4) Jan 04, 2011
As soon as the wealthy can afford emergent immortality, anything that stands in their way will be exterminated, legally or otherwise.
'It's a brave new world'.

"the wealthy"??? As if they all think the same and all have the same mindset? "the wealthy" are your peers. They're the same as you, except they happen to have more money. Their philosophies, religions, politics, etc, are as diverse as everyone else. Not only that, people move in and out of "wealthy" and "not wealthy". Many people experience both. People are just people. We, as a society, need to get out of this psychological addiction to class warfare and start looking at everyone as equal, fellow human beings. Just because your neighbor earns a dollar more than you (or $1,000, or $1M), doesn't make him or her any more or less evil than you.

If I found the key to immortality, I'd want to share it, not hoard it, regardless of how much money I had at the time.
CSharpner
5 / 5 (2) Jan 04, 2011
I agree with the premise of this article. We need to spend more on science. I also LOVE this :)
As Charles Darwin's great-great grandson Matthew Chapman, a Hollywood screenwriter, says: "Instead of being derided as geeks or nerds, scientists should be seen as courageous realists and the last great heroic explorers of the unknown. They should get more money, more publicity, better clothes, more sex and free rehab when the fame goes to their heads."

But, I've been anticipating these types of articles "we need more government spending on (pick your favorite gov expenditure) and whoever doesn't provide it is wrong and we'll blame their whole party and political philosophy". This always happens when anyone in the government attempts to make it spend within its means... and it comes from every recipient of government funding. Yes, if we had unlimited resources, we'd all benefit from spending more on just about every project. We have to deal with reality. We don't have the money.
CSharpner
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
continued...

Having said that, that doesn't mean we can't increase spending on some, but it's going to have to be offset by cuts elsewhere... just like in your own home budget. If you buy that 52" 3D HDTV, you're going to have to sacrifice somewhere else. You just can't have it all, either in your home budget, nor in a government budget. I think we need to examine all expenditures and figure out which ones help the most and simply prioritize. Start spending on the highest priorities and work our way down the list until we're out of collected revenue, then be responsible and stop there. Accept the fact we don't have unlimited wealth. Hopefully, science will be near the top of our priority list.
Shakescene21
4 / 5 (4) Jan 04, 2011
I'm an economist but I read Physorg daily, because of the importance of scientific progress to economic growth and solving our otherwise unsustainable socioeconomic trends.

It's a disgrace that scientists are so marginalized, when they are so critical. Darwin's descendant makes a good point that movie stars are vastly better rewarded than scientists, and it's worth noting that he chose a career in Hollywood instead of Science.
SkiSci
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
I bet you'd get groupie tail if you cured cancer
CSharpner
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
groupie tail

LOL! When I read that an hour ago, I thought that was some kind of disease!
ryggesogn2
1.5 / 5 (6) Jan 04, 2011
It's a disgrace that scientists are so marginalized,

The good ones are working in industry earning a living.
The rest figure out ways to prove what their govt masters want them to prove.
Ethelred
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 05, 2011
I see that Marjon so glories in his ignorance that he wants all of mankind to join him in perpetual ignorance.

Ethelred
Quantum_Conundrum
3 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2011
The basic premise rests on the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow, who documented that advances in technology and knowledge drove U.S. economic growth in the first half of the 20th century. If it was true then, it's even more so in today's information economy.


In contemporary times, technology is actually helping drive unemployment UP due to automation.

Additionally, in the past the economy was driven by population growth as new homes, infrastructure, and businesses needed to be contructed to support the growing population, which kept working class people in a job. Now that the population has leveled off, these jobs no longer exist, and there is no "demand" for labor because everything we need is already produced by those who already have jobs.

New gimmick businesses and entertainments, such as social networking sites, and actors and singers do not increase productivity or economy.
Quantum_Conundrum
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 09, 2011
At this point, there arer only a few basic categories of advancements that actually "help" the economy be truly more "economicial".

1) Don't make things people really don't need.

2) Figure out ways to make the same things at a lower cost.

3) Figure out ways to extend product lifetime.

In capitalism, individual companies have no motivation to extend product lifetime even though it would help civilization as a whole, because they only make money when you have to buy a replacement.

4) Produce even more automation to reduce number of employees needed, lower overtime costs and insurance costs, and cut the labor union cord.

====

giving people a job only helps if there is an actual need for that position. We don't need more brands of toys, cars, or computers, etc, and what we have already meets our demands, so there is no room to hire more people.

We could use better computers and cars, but an upstart has no chance of competing...they are impossibly behind...
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2011
Automobile companies are only going to make vehicles that are good enough to compete with their competitors, and no better.

They do not make money by making cars and parts that last for 6 to 10 years. they make money by making cars and parts which break down the one mile after, or one day after the warranty expires. If they make a car which costs the same amount to purchase, but lasts 20% longer at peak performance, then they cut their income by 20%, because people would buy new cars about 20% less often.

so this is the paradox in that the "Corporation" in many product lines has absolutely no motivation to improve the quality of it's products.

In fact, with low population growth, they even have motivation to team up with their competitors and reduce the life-time of their products, so that they can all have increased sales.

This is why automobiles don't last as long as they used to, and get no better gas mileage than they did 30 years ago.
ryggesogn2
2.4 / 5 (5) Jan 09, 2011
QC has the wrong idea. The more technology advances, the more the need for more educated and technical workforce.
no motivation to improve the quality of it's products.

Of course they do. Its called competition and efficiency.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2011
Of course they do. Its called competition and efficiency.


Uh....no...

Let's take an example.

Let's say that a car company invents an automobile that lasts twice as long as the similar class competitor. They will quickly corner the market, but they will not make one cent more money...unless they then increase the price.(good for the company, bad for everyone else.)

If you have an automobile that lasts twice as long as your competitor at the same price then you put the competitor out of business. But your own sales are still no better than before, because you have twice as many customers, but people need to buy the product half as often. So you make no more money anyway.

This is the whole problem with the "free market". It is anything but free. It leads to feudalism.

Automation does not produce more technical jobs. One computer programmer in a modernn production facility can do the job of tens or hundreds of laborers.
Quantum_Conundrum
2.7 / 5 (3) Jan 09, 2011
And then once you have the systems in place and one programmer and a maintenance tech or two, you don't have anyone else there. There are no need for these abandoned workers, even if they wentn back to school to get training in computers or engineering, because you don't need 50 programmers and maintenance techs to run the computers...you need just 1 guy...

I actually worked in production facility. I've seen this first hand. Robots and computers do not create new jobs, they totally eliminate jobs, even by the time you count all the production of the robots and computers, you still end up with fewer employees across the entire spectrum as compared to the non-automated "lower tech" production.

The canning and bottling industry has gone from a case of hundreds of employees on the floor of a factory to produce a few hundred thousand cans or bottles per week, several decades ago, to now 10 employees produce 8 million cans or bottles per week.
ryggesogn2
1.7 / 5 (3) Jan 09, 2011
One computer programmer in a modernn production facility can do the job of tens or hundreds of laborers.

'0s' and '1s' can't assemble parts, can't create the motors or sensors or metrology needed to mass produce part efficiency and appropriate tolerances.
Automation creates MORE technical jobs.
If you have an automobile that lasts twice as long as your competitor at the same price then you put the competitor out of business.

Why? Toyota has been in business for quite some time making cars that last a long time. They have competitors in Japan, Korea and the USA.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2011
The canning and bottling industry has gone from a case of hundreds of employees on the floor of a factory to produce a few hundred thousand cans or bottles per week, several decades ago, to now 10 employees produce 8 million cans or bottles per week.

You want people to be employed in tedious assembly line work for 40 years?
Quantum_Conundrum
3 / 5 (3) Jan 09, 2011
You want people to be employed in tedious assembly line work for 40 years?


no, but you miss the point.

There is no place for these people to work.

In a few decades when we get the first humanoid androids capable of the simplest assembly line work, it will totally replace even more of the labor force. It might only take a few dozen human workers to produce thousands of androids, which in turn will replace thousands of workers on assembly lines everywhere.

Where will these people work?

You don't magically get more jobs in any sector just for the hell of it, and if everybody is an accountant who's money are they going to manage?

Accounting will be fully automated too very soon. Large farming operations are automating everything from planting, irrigation, and now harvesting.

If everyone is an engineer, what are they going to be designing, and how will they be paid?
ryggesogn2
1.2 / 5 (6) Jan 09, 2011
In a few decades when we get the first humanoid androids capable of the simplest assembly line work, it will totally replace even more of the labor force.


In a few decades FTL travel will enable colonies in the solar system and in neighboring systems.
In a few decades, every human on earth will have the opportunity to live like everyone else in clean, safe housing; clean safe food and water....

I think QC gives his industry too much credit.
Quantum_Conundrum
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 09, 2011
ryggesogn2:

Labor robots with at least animal intelligence, or else specialized intelligence capable of working on an assembly line are not very far away. It is the natural progression of computer technology and automation.

The comparison or automation to FTL travel is absurd.
CSharpner
2.5 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2011
Contradictions by QC (I'm not picking on you, just pointing out some things that you need to clarify for us):

Pro Automation helps the economy:
2) Figure out ways to make the same things at a lower cost.
...
4) Produce even more automation to reduce number of employees needed, lower overtime costs and insurance costs, and cut the labor union cord.


Pro Automation hurts the economy:
In contemporary times, technology is actually helping drive unemployment UP due to automation.


We need more:
We could use better computers and cars


We don't need more:
We don't need more brands of toys, cars, or computers, etc, and what we have already meets our demands

CSharpner
5 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2011
QC,
New gimmick businesses and entertainments, such as social networking sites, and actors and singers do not increase productivity or economy.

Entertainers don't increase productivity for products & services. They DO help the economy since people buy their performances, swag, and all the celebrity gossip TV shows and magazines. The businesses that collect the money have employees and they buy products & services to keep their businesses running, which means the businesses that provide the products & services for them are also helped, etc. This flows through the whole economy as a feedback loop. Entertainment, not directly helping industry's productivity, is itself a big part of the economy.

When money is spent, the economy is helped. It's the movement of money that makes an economy active. When people hold back on spending, the whole economy suffers, which is what's happening now. Both individuals and businesses are holding back on spending.

continued...
CSharpner
not rated yet Jan 09, 2011
continued...

Regardless of the reason, the economy is hurting. When people start spending, the economy will start to be resurrected.
CSharpner
5 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2011
Competition:

QC, the economy is helped when companies make more money, even if it means higher prices for the consumer. Even though, we as consumers don't want to spend higher portions of our income on fewer resources, what gets the economy moving is when we spend out money. Sure, I'd be better off if my electric and gas bills were 1/10th, so I could spend my money on other nice things for me and my family and put more away in savings, but that isn't necessarily the best thing for the economy as a whole.

What's good for the consumer isn't always what's best for the economy, as much as we don't want to admit it, it's true. And, there are cases too when what's best for a business isn't what's best for the economy. It's not an all or none issue. The economy is very complex and not everything that helps the economy is 100% palatable.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Jan 09, 2011
What's good for the consumer isn't always what's best for the economy

What do you think and economy is?
The best economy is one that satisfies the most needs and wants of its participants at the lowest cost.
Ultimately EVERY participant in an economy IS a consumer so what is good for the consumer IS good for the economy.
The reason the economy is 'hurting' is govt regulations that create uncertainty. Limit the costs due to govt and watch economies prosper.
ryggesogn2
2 / 5 (4) Jan 09, 2011
The comparison or automation to FTL travel is absurd.

So are your predictions.
100 years ago QC would be worried about buggy whip makers losing their jobs to automobile production.
CSharpner
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2011
Ultimately EVERY participant in an economy IS a consumer so what is good for the consumer IS good for the economy.

You need to understand the difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics. For example, it's good to save a lot for retirement (microeconomics), but if everyone suddenly started doing it all at the same time, spending would go down, hurting the economy (macroeconomics). That's just one of many examples. All your other stuff is right on.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) Jan 09, 2011
You need to understand the difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics.

I think socialists need to understand economics is an emergent process based upon billions of decisions people make every day.
When you squeeze a balloon, a macro-economic policy, unnatural bulges appear. The more you squeeze the more distorted the bulges.
Control freaks refuse to understand the best economic policy is to enable environments the protect individual property rights and promote individual choices.