Money for Wall Street but never science

To think a week ago we were fretting about pigs and lipstick!

Strange as it seems, the collapse of Wall Street (coupled with pure fear for our own futures) is not the most serious long-term problem that should worry us.

In the midst of the noise from Barack Obama and John McCain on how to get our country back on track, we must demand they address the frightening decline of money spent on science and transformational technology research and development.

President Bush did little for eight years to shore up America’s competitiveness. During his watch we added $4 trillion to our $10 trillion national debt and now he is taking us into more debt to bail out insurance conglomerate AIG with $85 billion, $200 billion for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and billions more for Bear Stearns. But the government spends only a few billion a year on basic research that made this country a superpower.

According to Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we are in great danger of being surpassed by such countries as China, Germany, India and Japan, which invest huge sums in new universities and scientific research.

The Science Coalition, representing 47 major universities, and The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation are pushing Congress to triple R & D funding by passing the America Competes bill. They have frightening statistics, especially about our lack of research into energy solutions. They calculate we spend less than $4 billion a year on clean energy R & D, less than the bill for three days worth of imported oil, less than two percent in today’s dollars of the total cost of the Apollo program. Yet our thirst for oil 21 million barrels a day — clearly threatens our national and financial security.

In 2000, we spent $148 billion on fossil fuels. That figure will quadruple this year. In 1973, 93 percent of U.S. energy demand came from fossil fuels, with 6 percent from renewable sources and 1 percent from nuclear energy. Today, fossil fuels provide 85 percent, 7 percent is from renewable energy and 8 percent comes from nuclear power.

But we have done nothing serious about global warming, pretending the threat is not real.

Nobel laureate Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, likens our situation to a family told there is a 50 percent chance their home will be destroyed by faulty wiring. The cost of new wiring is $20,000. The family, beset with obligations and bills, can either somehow get the money to be safe or continue consulting experts, hoping for one who will dismiss the threat.

Chu notes the Earth is now only five percent warmer than it was in the last Ice Age, when Pennsylvania and Ohio were frozen wastelands. The forecast is that the planet will warm another five degrees, resulting in the deaths of billions of people, he said.

David Bell, president, CEO and director of Intersil Corp., speaking on behalf of the Semiconductor Industry Association, said that basic, federally supported research provided the technology that makes possible cell phones, the data centers that support the Internet, hybrid cars and motor controls that run the nations biggest manufacturers. Yet that commitment has lessened. Who knows what others will discover that we wont?

We’ve heard this before. In the 1970s, gas lines and oil prices scared us, and our government pledged action, long forgotten. We spend 50 percent less on energy R & D than we did then.

The Science Coalition and the innovation task force held a press conference seeking a national call to action by the next president, tax credits and more tax dollars for basic research. Let us insist that Obama and McCain tell us why we should go into more debt for $300 billion to bail out mismanaged companies but wont spend $12 billion to secure our country’s future. You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.


(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)