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What $700 Billion Worth of Technology Looks Like

David Ewing Duncan| Portfolio.com
Wednesday, 8 Oct 2008 | 10:45 AM ET

There has been little discussion about what $700 billion would buy if the federal government were not spending it on the bailout. Maybe we're too shell-shocked by this huge dollop of borrowed money to go through this exercise of "What if...?"

For the sake of argument, however, here is a short list of what $700 billion would buy in the realm of science and technology:

  • Five complete Apollo space programs, which put 12 men on the moon between 1969 and 1972. Cost of Apollo program in 2005 dollars: $135 billion.
  • 23 years of funding for the National Institutes of Health. The 2009 fiscal budget is $30 billion, the same as 2008.
  • 259 years of funding for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an independent research agency within the Department of Defense that has funded some of America's major innovations, including key elements of the solid-state electronics revolution.
  • 304 human genome projects at $2.3 billion apiece.
  • 653 MacBook laptops fully loaded with software for every child on Earth between the ages of 4 and 18.
  • 1,850 years of funding for the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is on the front lines of developing alternative sources of energy. The lab's budget was increased in 2007 to $378.4 million, from $209.6 million in 2006.

I could go on, but you get the idea: Even a modest sliver of the Wall Street bailout could dramatically increase government support for research and development of science and technology in the U.S.

This may be exactly what we need right now, to pitch a little cash toward a major effort to support and speed up our non-defense national research-and-development expenditure—which now accounts for less than one-half a percentage point of G.D.P., the lowest in nearly 50 years.

Historically, human innovation has produced wonders and horrors, but more often than not dramatic new technologies have given the edge to nations, cultures, and civilizations that embrace them. Whether it was the invention of the wheel or of the microchip, those who failed to embrace science and technology tended to fail, or to be left behind.

This is why the next president should launch an initiative akin to John F. Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon—with a nod to Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.

The effort would employ not just Ph.D.'s, but workers of all levels of education and training for projects ranging from pure research to building things based on new technologies.

Can the public sector really do worse than Wall Street?

Some innovations might be imminently practical, such as applying new computer systems and algorithms to managing the nation's infrastructure of air and ground traffic; applying technology to build green cars; and developing new materials for the thousands of highways and bridges in desperate need of upgrades.

If this sounds pie-in-the-sky in an era of crisis deficits, let me throw out another number. The entire Works Progress Administration program, which employed millions and festooned America with state-of-the-art roads, bridges, and dams during a massive global depression, cost about $11.5 billion between 1935 and 1941.

That's $159 billion in 2007 dollars for a stimulus that's not a one-time tax cut encouraging people to buy another iPod, but an investment in ideas and in capital assets. Not incidentally, it would also upgrade our deteriorating infrastructure—some of which hasn't been updated since the W.P.A. 70 years ago.

Tacked onto a $700 billion bailout—which is really $1.6 trillion when Fannie, Freddie, and the rest are added in—what's another $159 billion, if it's used to actually build things that will last, and will make the nation more efficient and competitive?

Call it the New Technology Initiative, or New Tech. The plan would articulate a few basic, but highly ambitious goals that would be determined by a series of meetings called by the president-elect. Attendees would represent a variety of points of view in science, technology, the environment, economics, labor, finance, and public policy; together they could set a national investment agenda.

Once the president has made his decisions and consulted with Congress and other leaders in the U.S., he might then engage world leaders. The U.S. would be in a position of leadership—for a change—on critical global crises such as lessening carbon-dioxide emissions, and ending the world's dependency on oil.

Some will howl that government is too incompetent and corrupt to handle such an initiative. But I can give you 700 billion reasons why it can't do worse than the private sector, which has brought the world to the brink of economic collapse.

There is no shortage of ideas. Despite little help from Washington for the past seven years, entrepreneurs across America have been developing technologies for everything from green fuels and novel drugs to new materials to build roads.

Some ideas won't work. Failure and waste will be part of the equation—as it always is, in private as well as public enterprises—although one critical element that may help temper this would be a leadership that inspires people to think beyond their personal gain, at least for a minute or two.

When Barack Obama and John McCain talk about change, let's hope it includes a realization that real change means a recommitment to creativity and adaptation. We have made many mistakes as a species in using technologies that ultimately proved dangerous, but what choice do we have other than trying to learn and adapt with new and improved technologies?

Much more than our economy is at stake—this is survival.

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