July 23, 2008
A Smart Investment In Energy Education
By Genevieve Bennett, Breakthrough Generation Fellow
See our policy fact sheet
"Ignorance," Thaddeus Stevens once noted, "is more costly than taxes." Wise words - and indicative of a kind of long-term thinking in which we only seem to engage in fits and starts here in the U.S.
Consider that federal financing of loans for higher education and workforce training is a relatively new development. 2008 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the National Defense Education Act, a bill that authorized $6.7 billion (2008 dollars) to improve access to and quality of education in strategic defense-related fields: science, math, engineering, technology, foreign languages, and area studies.
Chances are you know someone who went to college thanks to the National Defense Education Act - about one in twenty people did. The GI Bill, passed fourteen years earlier, likewise opened the doors to higher education and job training to millions of Americans. It's estimated that around 40% of those who attended school on this bill wouldn't have been able to do so without it.
These investments paid off -- big time. Every dollar invested in the GI Bill generated $6.90 in returns, judging by the higher wages received by beneficiaries of the bill compared to what they would have earned otherwise (total added value to national economic output has been estimated at nearly $200 billion). Nobel Prizes going to Americans quadrupled in the latter half of the twentieth century. Federal student loans reached ten times as many Americans in 1964 as just five years earlier.
This has never been a country much inclined to do things on a small scale. The Soviets launched what was essentially a metal basketball - the Sputnik satellite, which Clare Booth Luce rather poetically referred to as "an intercontinental outer-space raspberry" to the United States - the chief technological accomplishment of which was that it made beeping noises while it orbited the earth. Our response? In one year - 1958 - we authorized a tripling of federal funding for research at federal labs, founded NASA and DARPA, and allocated more than a billion dollars over four years to develop the best minds and the best technology in the world. We were a nation that was not going to be outcompeted.
It was a hazy goal then, and perhaps would be no less hazy now. The energy crisis is in a lot of ways much more complicated and confusing than the Cold War ever was. And American competitiveness is being challenged more than ever, in terms of being the unparalleled leader in higher education and scientific innovation. Our students are testing squarely in the middle of the pack in science and math compared with other countries, while our researchers are getting squeezed between a lack of funding and institutional lethargy.
David Brooks in an op-ed earlier this week on the 'skills slowdown' in America noted that when the gap widens between education and technology, inequality increases. We'd do well to take notice. An investment in education and innovation - in human capital - is without a doubt the best investment you can make in long-term, across-the-board economic growth in a country like ours, founded as we are on a mix of sometimes startling boldness and Yankee ingenuity. It's also absolutely crucial to seriously addressing the energy crisis and strengthening our nation's middle class.
The Breakthrough Institute has recently released
For more information:
See our ongoing coverage on a National Energy Education act
National Energy Education Act Brief
(PDF, 256KB, Summer 2008)
The Baltimore Sun: "Realizing His Vision"
(PDF, 482KB, July 30, 2008)
San Francisco Chronicle: "An Energy Plan We Can Believe In"
(PDF, 588KB, July 31, 2008)