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Zuber urges Congress to fund science research and education

MIT's Maria Zuber testifies before Congress, 1/7/2009.
MIT's Maria Zuber testifies before Congress, 1/7/2009.

Funding for research and education in science and technology should be a major priority in the economic recovery package Congress will soon be talking up, said MIT geophysics professor Maria T. Zuber in testimony she gave on Jan. 7 before the Steering and Policy Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Energy and climate could be our Sputnik challenge -- a new way to infuse our best talent into our science and technology system," said Zuber, who is the head of MIT's Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences department. The launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 spurred major U.S. investment in education in science, math and technology and led to a boom in those areas.

Zuber emphasized that while direct economic stimulus plans could lead to short-term economic benefits, it takes education and technological innovation to create lasting, long-term economic growth and job creation.

"We need to bolster existing high-growth innovation areas, and we will need to create new areas," she said. "One path ahead is clear: the country is on the cusp of a revolution in energy science and technology." With the energy sector already at $2 trillion in the U.S. economy, "we don't have to invent a new market, we have to find new ways to grow and dominate an existing but nascent market." Such investments will not only create jobs, it will also have positive effects on the environment, and on the nation's technological leadership in the world, she said.

Toward that end, she suggested, the Department of Energy could fund many more of the 270 applications it already received for the creation of Energy Frontier Research Centers, many of which were very highly rated but were not accepted because of limited funding. In addition, major upgrades to the nation's electric grid are needed in order to enable greater efficiency and wider use of renewable energy.

Citing a recent DoE report, Zuber said that "we must develop the breakthrough energy technologies that will free us of our dependence on foreign oil, reduce our carbon emissions and create economic growth, but that will only happen with immediate, real investments."

But energy cannot be the whole story, Zuber said. It's also essential to increase the funding for research in a wide variety of areas, including health, aerospace, and basic science. Toward that end, supporting the purchase of major research instrumentation for colleges and universities could produce a stimulus for research while helping to train the scientists and engineers of the future. In addition, support for students in the form of fellowships to sustain important research will help to prepare a new generation of technicians and scientists.

Direct investment in education by supporting the best teachers is another key area needed to bring about long-term growth in the nation's technology base, Zuber said. "Investment in highly qualified teachers who inspire, encourage and challenge students" is crucial, she said.

Zuber, who is the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, was invited to testify by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Also on the panel were economists Mark M. Zandi and Martin Feldstein, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and former Lockheed Martin Chairman and CEO Norman R. Augustine.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 14, 2009 (download PDF).

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