Green Channel - Stimulating Science
Less certain, however, is whether Bella represents smart economics.
The cash for the project is a tiny slice of the stimulus package developed by Congress and the Obama administration to jump-start the economy. The stimulus legislation included about $18 billion for non-defense scientific research and development, a significant boost to the estimated $61.6 billion already going to science in the 2009 budget, according to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. But experts are divided about whether projects like Bella are compatible with the intent of Congress to create jobs as fast as possible.
“This is the kind of spending that is not really oriented toward jump-starting the economy and ending the recession,” said John Taylor, a professor of economics at Stanford, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an adviser to Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign. “It is longer term, and because of that, I think it shouldn’t be classified as a stimulus.”
But some other economists and business leaders defend this use of stimulus money, saying federal research grants gave birth to some important sector of the region’s economy, from microprocessors to computer networking, from biotechnology to the Internet.
“This is the best kind of government spending there is,” said Eric E. Schmidt, the chief executive of Google and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “It has a shortterm stimulative effect in terms of jobs and consumer spending. And it has the potential of inventing something very important like the internet.”
There is no doubt of the importance of the grants for science and for the Bay Area’s economy. They have turbocharged research prospects at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which is managed by Stanford University.
When Persis Drell was appointed director of the Stanford facility 18 months ago, her first task was to lay off nearly 200 people, or 13 percent of the staff. Since then, the laboratory has been retooling itself, shifting its focus from particle physics and using its infrastructure to build the world’s most powerful X-ray laser.
Part of SLAC’s $90 million in stimulus money will pay for the last of six experimental stations.” It is a tool that will allow us to see what was previously unseen,” she said.
Particle physics in the United States is at a crossroads. A 2006 National Research Council committee, led by Harold Shapiro, an economics professor and former president of Princeton University, concluded that a lack of investment meant that the United States risked forfeiting its leadership in particle physics.
“Simply put, the intellectual center of gravity is moving abroad and the US has not put forward a compelling strategic vision to contribute to the global enterprise,” Shapiro wrote in 2006 in the CERN Courier, a niche publication intended for the high-energy physics community.
Many scientists believe that few, if any, traditional particle accelerators - massive structures like the $9 billion Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, which is 17 miles in circumference - will be built in the future.
Bella may usher in a generation of smaller, cheaper particle accelerators. “Without the stimulus money,” Leemans said, “we would have sat on the sidelines.”
The stimulus will bring an additional $213.7 million over the next few years for new infrastructure and seismic upgrades and to support research projects in fields ranging from nanotechnology to high-speed networking.
Some staunch supporters of government-financed research agree with Mr. Taylor, saying that the economic impact of these projects will come too slowly.
“Funding for these projects detracted from our ability to do more public spending that would create jobs right away,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy.
SLAC has spent only $4 million of its $90 million so far and hired about 50 new employees.
The Berkeley laboratory has estimated it will create about 700 jobs for infrastructure and construction projects. In addition, the money will help to create a number of research, engineering and other jobs at the laboratory, and allow administrators to retain positions.
But much of the impact will be down the economic daisy chain of suppliers. The bulk of the laboratory’s biggest grant - $62 million earmarked for a prototype high-speed network connecting government research facilities - will go to buy services and equipment from network operators and technology companies.
Leemans said that the planned development of Bella had already helped in intangible ways: he has been able to retain four top scientists who were being wooed by rivals in Europe.
“Having the best infrastructure,” he said, “gets you the best people.”
NAME OF THE CONTRIBUTOR: MIGUEL HELEFT & MAGGIE FACELIFARD