Sunday, May 11, 2008

Obama on Trade and Investing in Science

Senator Obama answers a question about trade. He makes clear that he is not opposed to trade, but he wants trade deals with much stricter labor, safety, and environmental standards. He also talks about the need to support innovation, such as by doubling the research and development budget. Let me say a few words about that.

Much of the world economy is based on science and technology. While there is a lot of appreciation for the latter--just look at the computer you read this on--the role of basic scientific research in creating that technology is often overlooked. Without research over the previous decades, current technology could not continue advancing at the same rate. Without basic research today, future technological innovation would be starved.

Sometimes the payoff is fairly quick. For example, something called giant magnetoresistance was discovered 20 years ago, and now it is used in most computer hard drives.  (The 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Albert Fert and Peter Gr├╝nberg for their discovery of giant magnetoresistance.)

Sometimes the payoff takes a long time. For example, the arcane theory of quantum mechanics was developed in the 1920's. Few would have predicted a theory needed only at the atomic scale would end up being important to the world economy.  But most of our understanding of electronics, lasers, nuclear technology, and chemistry depends on an understanding of quantum mechanics.  In fact, it has been estimated that 1/3 of the  can be traced back to quantum mechanics.

The point is, we do not know which avenues of scientific research will lead to future technological breakthroughs.  Currently, the US government spends about 0.3% of the US GNP on basic research.  The report Rising Above the Gathering Storm calls for doubling that number--this is probably what motivated Senator Obama's comment.  That report also calls for improving math and science education--which I think is crucial for our future success.

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