The 21st century certainly isn’t making this question any easier to find answers to. We exist now in a time of austerity and an unstable international political economy that eliminates all it can while investing in as little as possible. And, closer to home, our American politics have made science and innovation a political, partisan affair, ignoring its broad social appeal and necessity. Bridging the gap between science and policy will require the reversal of both these trends.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs titled “Can America Be Fixed?,” Fareed Zakaria highlights recent US history to make the case that investment in innovation and infrastructure produces growth. In the 1950s and 1960s, we allocated a little over 5% of our GDP annually to investment, and we saw steady growth in the economy during that period. Conversely, since the 1970s, the United States has experimented with the opposite, cutting investments in national infrastructure and struggling with a lukewarm economy. With recent successes in Latvia and glimmers of hope in Italy and Greece, such austerity has become trendy. But the US and other countries around the world have proven time and time again that when the global community invests in infrastructure, science, and innovation, proportional growth results. We must again return to that mindset to bridge the gap.
This return will require collaboration between scientists and policy-makers around science and innovation, an atmosphere that has been hard to come by in the current partisan halls of Congress. As ASU’s Dan Sarewitz addresses in his recent article “Science must be seen to bridge the political divide,” scientists could do a better job of coming across as less of a left-leaning political interest group and more of a bipartisan force for social benefit and exploration. While this is true, our politicians must also do their part in giving issues like green technology and progressive innovation less stigma and more credence. It’s killing our exploration, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
To bridge the gap between science and policy is going to require a much different attitude than the one we’ve developed over the first years of this century. As a society we’ll need to remind ourselves again that austerity may seem like a quick fix, but investment in innovation and infrastructure has always been the most sustainable solution we have. And to do so will require our scientists and politicians to again come around the table, leave politics behind, and take a more pragmatic approach to researching and building a better future.
Image courtesy of Jason Spaceman, used under Creative Commons license.