Education’s an investment, not an expense!

Wrapping one's head around the data
Just did a pile o’ dishes and listened to a SciAm podcast featuring the remarks of Robert Rosner (head of Argonne National Laboratory). The short version is that science (and, I would argue, education in general) is a matter of necessity plus vision. First, science is not a luxury, but instead a necessity:

Without the science base, you cannot build an industrial base.

Second, science requires long term vision and public and private support in in basic research. It typically takes decades for culture changing technologies to move from the basic idea to ubiquity; Rosen gives as examples railroads, airplanes, transistors, computers, the internet, and lasers. The question then is

How do you convince the politics and the public that that lag in fact is real and that if you don’t make the investments … today … we’ll be lagging things that other folks that are making the investments

Rosen is (quite reasonably) focussed specifically on the question of support for science, but points out that this is part of a larger trend of irrationality in the U.S.:

But we all know that in the United States there are long traditions of anti-intellectualism, of what the Times today also refer to as anti-rationalism, the idea that there really are no facts, it’s all opinion, the idea that scientists [are] just playing their sand box and don’t connect with anybody.

What it really comes down to is a distressingly common failure for Americans to see any form of education (science or humanities, K12 or university) as a necessary investment in the strength and future of our society and country. For me this has become a useful litmus test to separate sensible conservatives (who understand the economic necessity of investment in key areas) from the wingnuts that have come to dominate the Republican party (who spout anti-intellectual nonsense while shredding schools and lining the pockets of themselves and their friends).

Eisenhower understood the practical necessity of an interstate road system, and encouraged and supported that investment. All Shrub can seem to invest in is Halliburton and their ilk.

Things to think (and ask) about in this happy election season.

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4 Responses to Education’s an investment, not an expense!

  1. CoryQ says:

    I was just having a very similar conversation to this with a co-worker (who is working on her capstone for a Education degree) yesterday. All I can add is a cheer of support to your position.

  2. Alan Krueger says:

    I think this can be generalized to a problem with only seeing immediate costs versus later, harder-to-quantify costs and benefits.

    For instance, some decry raising additional money to pay for transit improvements while cheerfully ignoring the costs of crumbling infrastructure to the future and the possible benefits from an investment.

    Curiously, many of the same people seem to be able to understand investment in fiduciary instruments like stocks, bonds, CDs, and so on, but cannot appear to translate this understanding to investment in education and infrastructure.

  3. Maarten Keijzer says:

    I usually use the slogan:

    “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”

    Replace education with ‘R&D’, or ‘science’ where applicable.

    Just wanted to chip in. Apologies.

  4. Phi says:

    No need to apologize at all – I think that slogan hits the nail on the head, and I agree completely that “education”, “R&D”, and “science” all fit there nicely! I would actually go further and include the arts as well. That argument is more complex, however, if you’re dealing with someone who measures everything in terms of economic impact as the benefits are harder to quantify.

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