The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

The Genius of Science

20 May 2011

Scientific innovation and job creation has become one of the Obama administration’s most cherished mantras over the last year. The new “Sputnik Moment” first heralded in the last State of the Union address has, despite the best efforts of many fiscal conservatives, grown into a broad inter-agency policy to spur economic development improve dire unemployment numbers in the U.S. Compared to most federal programs that were affected by the FY 2011 budget cut of $38 billion, the NSF, in particular among federal research funding, fared reasonably well by keeping their levels where they were in 2010.

Clearly more must be done if the innovation is to deliver real gains to the flourishing of economy and society that is envisioned. Recent studies are showing just how powerful this injection of growth can be. Sean Pool, Assistant Editor for Science Progress at the Campaign for American Progress, this week wrote about two reports in particular that demonstrate this.

The NIH report, An Economic Engine: NIH Research, Employment, and the Future of the Medical Innovation Sector, “found that the NIH directly and indirectly supported nearly 488,000 public and private sector jobs, and generated $68 billion in new economic activity in 2010 alone. Meanwhile, NIH research grants in FY 2010 cost the taxpayers only $26.6 billion. This would represent a 150 percent single-year return on public investment, counting total economic output from the research as revenue.”

Another report, Genomic Revolution, by the Battelle Memorial Institute found that “the public investment of $3.8 billion [in the Human Genome Project] spread between1988 and 2003 yielded $796 billion (three-quarters of a trillion dollars), in economic output, and created nearly 4 million job-years over the 23-year period between 1988 and 2010.”

The same is true of social science investment. Great developments in science always come with social, psychological, and philosophical challenges that make it possible for translation into social progress. Moreover, behavioral knowledge, organization, and effective communication are all important in generating those very discoveries in the natural and mathematical sciences that have such tangible benefits for medical and technological progress.

There is a further detail of great significance for social science which is that it can teach us a lot about what innovation actually is. This is particularly true of psychology. A recent comment by SPSSI member Pamela Rutledge in the magazine Psychology Today is ampliative: “the real success stories throughout history have been people who were willing to suspend their beliefs and boundaries long enough to free their brains to see with new eyes. Youth is not the key ingredient to innovation, however. It's the ability to see through new eyes. In fact, the ability to draw on the wisdom of experience coupled with a new perspective would beat the new perspective alone every time.”

If investment in scientific innovation can latch on to this fact then social progress will have been handed a helpful push in the right direction.

By Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin