In the wake of the recent congressional initiation of sequestration, our country faces major budget cuts. These cuts will have far reaching effects ranging from a large number of near-term furloughs to the long-term decrease in support for both our national system of education and scientific research.
The recent political debate has unfortunately framed the problem as the incongruence of free enterprise and government spending--there's not enough of the former, while supposedly too much of the latter. However, it is important to recognize that these principles are not necessarily opposed to one another. In the time of Lincoln, republicans like William Henry Seward saw the investment in and expansion of infrastructure, education, and other social programs as fundamental to free enterprise, as summarized by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Kearns Goodwin describes Seward's vision as "... an ever-expanding economy, built on free labor, widespread public education, and technological progress" where he called for "...a vast expansion of the public school system, (including better schools for the black population), the promotion of canals and railways, the creation of a more humane system for the treatment of the insane".
This perspective recognizes that the success of an economy depends on the ingenuity, training, and skill of the workforce, and on the average social level of a society. This is a synthesis that we desperately need today: the continual growth of a free enterprise economy through a foundation of continual social improvement. Fundamentally, our economy depends on new technology, inventions, and ideas. And this involves the continual investment in basic programs such as education and research. For example, investment in early education has a positive impact on the long-term success of students.
Our national system of scientific research is one of the most effective knowledge and technology production engines in the world. Basic scientific research is a fundamental driver of our economy. Nearly every major innovation that fuels our economy--from the Internet to cancer treatments (and even the developing cure for HIV) is based at some level on our government's investment in basic science. For example, the internet was initially created at academic institutions though funding from the Department of Defense, and it was later expanded under funding from the National Science Foundation. The return on this government investment is basically incalculable. Imagine how many jobs, companies, new economic sectors, and social benefits have sprung from this decision to invest in basic science--in innovation.
The reason this system works so well is that the government's investment--through the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, NASA, amongst many other administrations--should be thought of as a massive entrepreneurial seed fund with far-reaching societal benefits. Our scientific system is composed of many highly skilled, highly motivated scientists who are in constant competition for grant awards to fund new projects. This is the world of science: scientists are constantly competing to win scientific recognition for novel discoveries which will increase the likelihood of winning the next grant to take off in yet another new direction. All of this leads to the constant production of innovations with applications across many sectors.
Science is also an incredibly efficient economic enterprise: Because government funding is distributed in relatively small chunks to individuals who passionately want to see the completion of a project, those individuals have a vested interest in using these funds efficiently. Walking through the hallways of most scientific buildings or laboratories will give one an entirely different view of "big" government spending: graduate students often sit at desks or lab benches that were purchased in the 1960s or '70s, hallways and lecture halls that have not been updated or remodeled in 40-plus years, all so that resources can be devoted to doing the actual science via laboratory supplies and essential equipment. Contrast that with any newly remodeled corporate office and it causes us to reevaluate how "inefficient" government spending actually is.
However, massive cuts from the sequestration will dramatically impact how many scientists can carry out research in an already difficult funding climate resulting in fewer discoveries, less innovative technologies, and fewer health breakthroughs. We must recognize that basic investments in science and education pave the way for economic progress. Even in this time of fiscal difficulties, as a nation we should increase funding to science and education as the most basic driver of our economy.
Furthermore, we should replicate the scientific model of entrepreneurial government spending to solve other challenges our nation faces and further stimulate our economy. The social, technological, health, environmental, agricultural, and industrial challenges that we'll face in the next 100 years are both varied and complex. Developing the right solutions will require the distributed efforts of many small groups of people working intensely and ingeniously. This necessitates the ability for many individuals to start local, mission-driven projects.
I propose that we need a nationwide system of entrepreneurial support for start-ups focused on solving major challenges. We need a National Foundation for Social Good, or something similar--an organization that would take in large numbers of grant applications, submit these to experts for review, and fund replicable solutions to specific social, environmental, or technological issues. Such a system could empower individuals at any stage of life or level of experience to put their creativity and passion to work, and, like our system of education and science, would certainly produce numerous new companies and technologies in a time when we need new jobs and new economic sectors. This is an investment that we cannot afford to decline to make if we want to germinate future economic growth.