Sunday, November 04, 2012
Science matters in Virginia this election
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From the RoundTable blog
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In this election year, the importance of federal funding for science may not be at the top of the list of reasons why who wins matters, but it should be.
My mother died of breast cancer when I was 6. Fifty-five years later, I have many friends who have returned to full and productive lives after breast cancer.
When my children were young, we bought them encyclopedias. Today, we use Google or Wikipedia to gain instant access to the world's knowledge.
What do these two scientific advances have in common? Federal government investments in science and technology played a critical role in both. The National Cancer Institute supports research that helped countless women beat the disease my mother could not. And Larry Page, a cofounder of Google Inc., got his start designing search engines with a grant from the National Science Foundation.
At a forum called Science Debate, both presidential candidates were invited to respond to a set of questions about their science and innovation investment priorities. In his response, President Obama said he wants to double funding to key science agencies to support scientists and entrepreneurs and train 100,000 new science and math teachers. Sixty-eight American Nobel laureates in science praised the president for his understanding of "the key role science has played in building a prosperous America."
Gov. Mitt Romney said he would "focus government resources on research programs that advance the development of knowledge, and on technologies with widespread application and potential to serve as the foundation for private-sector innovation and commercialization." But the governor did not provide any indication of the size of the investment he will make.
Romney's reticence is troubling because his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, authored and passed a budget resolution in the House of Representatives that includes unexplained cuts of 20percent or more in discretionary domestic programs, including higher education and scientific research. According to the 68 Nobel laureates, Romney "supports a budget that, if implemented, would devastate a long tradition of support for public research and investment in science at a time when this country's future depends, as never before, on innovation."
I can speak directly to how important this funding is to our nation's future. I have spent my career as a psychologist of innovation studying the thought processes of researchers who are creating tomorrow's discoveries and technologies. Small grants from the National Science Foundation allowed me to work with distinguished colleagues from multiple disciplines here at the University of Virginia and across our country to study the invention and development of new technologies and develop case studies to inspire our students. I am particularly proud of the students who come back to tell me about the businesses they have created.
I gave back to the National Science Foundation by working for two years as a program director. One of my favorite responsibilities was working with colleagues from multiple agencies, universities and nonprofit groups on the National Nanotechnology Initiative, where federal investment has focused not only on discoveries and innovations, but also on increasing public awareness of and engagement with science so that as new materials, circuits and drug-delivery systems are developed, the public will be involved in deciding what products and systems should emerge.
My colleague Roop Mahajan, director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Virginia Tech, says creativity blooms at the intersections between disciplines, as is happening under this nanotechnology initiative. Under Obama, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation are all engaged with the National Nanotechnology Initiative, creating new programs where teams from different disciplines can work together and across the public-private sector divide to solve challenges to our national security, public health and energy independence.
Efforts such as these are bearing fruit in Virginia. According to United for Medical Research, public investments in biomedical research support nearly 7,000 jobs here in Virginia - investments that are catalyzing a burgeoning high-technology cluster developing across the state from Arlington to Danville.
And just last month, the Obama administration announced an award to the University of Virginia to invest in new systems to identify publicly funded researchers who deserve additional support to turn their research into innovations that can attract funding from the private sector and lead to new business opportunities and jobs in the commonwealth.
From cancer cures to catalyzing the Internet, public investment in science promises not only a better understanding of the origins of our universe and ourselves but also economic, health and environmental benefits over the long term. Innovative partnerships that help bring together stakeholders across disciplines and in the public, private and academic sectors can help turn scientific breakthroughs into economic realities.
It matters whether we elect leaders who will continue investing in science and technology. I hope voters in Virginia will keep this issue in mind when heading to the ballot box.