Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Science, Innovation and the Economy

During last night's State of the Union Address, science and science education got a shout out. Actually, they got a lot of shout outs, some pretty big ones too. The President said that "The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation," and "[w]e need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair."

A lot of the first part of his speech, President Obama extolled the importance that science and research has on society and the economy. He called for more science funding and to "prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math." Scientific discoveries lead to new technologies which spur new industries and jobs. Unfortunately there's kind of a catch, it's hard to tell ahead of time what discoveries and technologies will change the world.

To paraphrase Niels Bohr, predictions are hard, especially about the future. As President Obama said last night during "None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be or where the new jobs will come from. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t know that something called the Internet would lead to an economic revolution... But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need." He went on to highlight examples like computer chips and GPS systems that are integral to modern society which evolved out of basic research.

Another great example is the laser.

LaserFest told the same story about how in 50 years, the laser went from "a solution looking for a problem" to integral to modern society. When Ted Maiman built the first working laser in 1960, it was seen as nifty novelty, but not too much more. Researchers would build more powerful and different kinds of lasers to outdo each other in a sort of friendly arms race, but it wasn't immediately what kind of impact that the laser would have on the world. Then in the mid 1970s things started to change. Ideas that had been shown to work in a lab like fiber optic communications and laser eye surgery started becoming commercially available. Other laser applications like bar code scanners, laserdisc readers and laser cutters also began making their debuts in the late '70s and early '80s.

Today information technology has been completely revolutionized as lasers and fiber optics form the backbone of the internet while CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are all recorded and read using lasers. Lasers are used extensively in manufacturing to cut metal and in medicine during delicate surgeries. Even cat toys use laser pointers. It's almost mind boggling how ubiquitous they are to the modern economy. It's hard to come up with a precise figure, but lasers contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to the economy either directly or indirectly every year.

Inventions like the laser highlight the importance of basic scientific research and its impact on the economy.


Special guests in First Lady Obama’s Viewing Box included Mikayla Nelson from Central Catholic High School in Billings Montana, Diego Vasquez from South Mountain Community College in Phoenix Arizona, Amy Chyao a high school student from Richardson Texas and Brandon Ford from West Philadelphia high School. All of them have either conducted research or worked on a technological development in hopes of bettering society. Here they pose with Carl Wieman the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Associate Director for Science, Lori Garver NASA’s Deputy Administrator, John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

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