Knowledge the Most Important Renewable Resource

Tom Price is blogging live from the American Association for the Advancement of Science's public policy conference for Miller-McCune.com.
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Investing in scientific research can stimulate the economy in the short term, build a sustainable economy for the long term and address major problems such as poverty and global warming.

That optimistic view came from an international panel of science leaders during the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual public policy conference today.

“Ideas propel prosperity,” said Gary Goodyear, Canada’s minister of state for science and technology. Unlike many fuels, “knowledge is endlessly renewable,” he said, and it “makes exponential progress possible.

“Investment in science, technology and innovation is particularly important during economic tough times,” he said. Sustained investment is “security against tough economic times” in the long run.

Canada’s current stimulus spending is part of a long-term science and technology strategy, he said. The strategy is designed to give his country an “entrepreneurial advantage,” a “knowledge advantage,” and a “people advantage” in the form of a highly skilled workforce, he added.

A portion of the Canadian science funding addresses global warming through research into hydrogen fuel cells, energy-efficient buildings, capturing carbon from fossil fuels and generating power from the wind, sun, tides and vegetation. Canada is upgrading educational facilities, laboratories and scientific equipment. Another program aims to help small businesses become more competitive through innovation. The government is funding university research chairs for 20 top scientists from around the world who will do their work in Canada. And it’s offering $50,000-a-year graduate student stipends to select international and Canadian students for study at Canadian universities.

“Canada wants the best, and we’re willing to do what it takes to get them,” Goodyear explained.

Many governments are responding to the recession by increasing support for research and development, according to Cathleen Campbell, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation.

Even governments in poor countries such as Ghana and Uganda recognize science’s value, said Alfred Watkins, the World Bank’s science and technology program coordinator. Unfortunately, in many developing countries, scientists have little interaction with government decision makers, he added. And they need assistance from the developed world.

The bank is helping such countries build scientific infrastructure, Watkins said. Campbell said her foundation is teaching proper scientific procedures to scientists in developing countries — such as appropriate treatment of human research subjects, research ethics and research management.

Efforts to build science in developing countries need to be designed for specific countries’ specific circumstances, she said, explaining that “there’s no ‘one size fits all’ here.”

Despite many governments’ support for science, Watkins said, scientists still need to sell themselves to the broader public.

“Too many people tend to think of science as something very abstract, something completely removed from everyday problem-solving,” he explained. “They don’t realize science and technology are about clean water, food security and transportation systems.”

That’s partly because research doesn’t produce the quick results much of the general public prefers, said James Wilsdon, director of the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre in the United Kingdom.

“If you fund great scientists and leave them alone to do great science, (results) will come,” Wilsdon said, but not necessarily in a short time.

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