America Wants Jobs, and "Jobs" Means "Science"

11/22/2010 11:24 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James M. Gentile Dean for the Natural & Applied Sciences, Hope College, Holland, MI

While the immediate impact of the mid-term elections was clearly political, the overriding message of the elections was not. It was about jobs. America has lost more than 8.4 million jobs in the last five years, and Americans want them back. They are essential to the American dream.

The good news is that we know how to produce those jobs. The question is: Will the politics produce them?

The key to jobs in America has been, and remains, science and technology. In the second half of the 20th century, scientific and technological advances are estimated to have been responsible for well over 40 percent of U.S. prosperity. "It was innovation based on science," wrote Yale University President Richard Levin in Foreign Affairs, "that propelled the United States past Japan during the two decades prior to the crash of 2008. It was Japan's failure to innovate that caused it to lag behind."

Yet America's historic advantage in innovation is being allowed to dissipate. "Not long ago, America's global leadership in technology innovation was taken as a given," writes Stephen Ezell of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "Research from U.S. corporate, academic, and government laboratories reeled off a string of transformative innovations, in everything from transistors, mobile phones, and personal computers to lasers, graphical user interfaces, search engines, the Internet, and genetic sequencing. But other countries have since closed the innovation gap, and in many cases far outpaced the United States."

Part of the answer is increased funding for science and technology in the United States - at a time when there are growing calls for cuts to discretionary nonmilitary spending, which includes agencies that sponsor scientific research. But the answer isn't more money alone. How that money would be spent is also crucial.

What America needs is a "Smart Grid" for science funding. That grid would evaluate proposed expenditures on the basis of certain key factors that are instrumental to U.S. success in innovation:

• Does the funding support research that has the potential to be transformative? Is it "high risk, high reward" or is it incremental in its outlook?
• Is the funding catalytic? Will it impact learning in a way that advances a field of knowledge?
• Does the funding contribute to our human scientific infrastructure? Does it support, for instance, our pipeline of future scientists?
• Does the funding advance early career scientists, who have the greatest potential for new approaches to age-old questions?

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, writes: "Companies like Ford cut wasteful spending while doubling down on productive investment. That's exactly what the nation has to do over all." The key word there is "productive." Spending money isn't the answer; spending it productively is.

America has an extraordinary history of innovation and, as a result, economic prosperity. To rebuild and maintain that prosperity, we must rededicate ourselves as a nation to innovation. We must invest productively in those things that are essential to innovation: science education at all levels; scientific research that is potentially transformative; tax incentives that encourage investment in research and development; immigration policy that encourages scientists and graduate students in the sciences to come to the United States and stay here.

We know how to produce the jobs that Americans want. The question is: Will we do it?

The Democrats took a beating in the mid-term election, because they did not appear to be focused enough on jobs. The Republicans now talk of cutting spending. If both parties come together around an agenda of productive investment in science and technology, the nation will win - and the jobs that we have created in the past will again be available in the future.

James M. Gentile is President & CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest private foundation, and the first dedicated wholly to science.