President Barack Obama says it. Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), says it. University and research leaders elsewhere are saying it, too. The number one current rationale for extra research investment is that it will generate badly needed economic growth.
“Science is more essential for our prosperity, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before,” said Obama, addressing the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC last year. Getting down to the details, Collins has recently cited a report by Families USA, a Washington DC-based health-advocacy group, which found that every US$1 spent by the NIH typically generates $2.21 in additional economic output within 12 months. “Biomedical research has generally been looked at for its health benefits, but the case for it generating economic growth is pretty compelling,” says Collins. In Britain, senior scientists have called on the government to support science as a means of helping the economy out of recession. Heeding such arguments, governments in Germany, Sweden, Canada and Australia, as well as the United States, have increased research spending as part of stimulus packages designed to aid their struggling economies.
Beneath the rhetoric, however, there is considerable unease that the economic benefits of science spending are being oversold.