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Bridging the Gap – A More Perfect Partnership

Skyscrapers PhotoHow do we bridge the gap between science, the imagination and policy-making to take great ideas to impact and build towards a more stable and productive future?

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. 

One Comment

  1. tucsonterpfan
    tucsonterpfan February 19, 2013 at 5:40 pm . Reply

    About a point made:

    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.”

    Yes, but that time was a much different time than what the US faces today, in part, because of what the US and the world looked like heading into the 1950s and on into the early 1960s.

    After World War II, America was shifting gears from a wartime economy to an open and innovative one. We were not only producing consumer goods as never before, we were also producing them for citizens who had saved money during the war years. With food rationed, no new model cars built (nor rubber car tires — war effort), little home construcion, and few goods such as washers, radios, and other appliances not being produced from 1941 to 1945, American were forced by the “in it for the duration” war rationing to be better savers.

    So, after the war in the late 40s and early 50s, many Americans had money in their pockets, and the country went on a building, producing, and buying spree. Homes were built, factories retooled from wartime production, new cars were built, and a new interstate highway system to drive them on was under construction. Former GIs were heading to college under the new GI bill which also helped to ease them back into the labor force.

    America was also producing goods for much of the world as much of Europe and Asia were still in ruins from the war years. And a plus in the US then, today somewhat of a growing burden, the largest demographic labor force was just getting started. Those are today’s baby-boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who are now taxing the support and entitlement system to the max and will do so for many years to come.

    Austerity today, for many, is a “dirty word.” Real, controlled and thoughtfully designed austerity has not been put into place for any length of time in most places where some say it has already “been tried and failed.”

    One exception is in Germany, where during good times that country made changes in its entitlement system, its labor force, and of major importance, in its labor union structures. Some reforms are “in,“ and many are still being implemented; yes, many of them do and will continue to cause some pain, but by starting when times were better, these measures should help Germany from becoming another Greece.

    Have we in America delayed too long to make needed reforms? We in the US, as Zakaria says, have been and continue to “paper over [our economic problems] with temporary solutions.” None of these “solutions” has brought us any indication of a successful, long-term, or lasting fix.

    For Zakaria, one of the notable periods of “good times” was “when the Bill Clinton administration actually ran a surplus.” But even those “surpluses” were budget surpluses. Those surpluses were not in the form of cash in the national treasury. The surpluses were simply destined to be more borrowed money, but it was money we did not add to the national debt. Despite the much heralded Clinton budget surpluses (touted by both sides of the aisle with a democratic president and a republican controlled congress), our national debt increased every year during the Clinton administration.

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