The Economic Stimulus Did a Great Job of Stimulating Science. Here’s What It Bought.

The state of the universe.
Oct. 2 2013 11:13 AM

Stimulating Science

Here’s what the economic stimulus bought: advances in medicine, green energy, and our understanding of duck genitalia.

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The infusion of cash for research allowed the government to take on some edgier science than the safe bets it usually spends public dollars on. And while those higher-risk projects didn’t all pan out, some did in big ways.

For example, a machine built on the untested premise of a new archaeological dating technique is exactly the kind of thing that wouldn’t normally get funded, says archaeologist Carl Lipo at California State University–Long Beach. At best, a project like that would be told to come back with more preliminary research in hand, he said. Instead, Lipo’s team landed a $300,000 grant to build a machine that would test rehydroxylation, a recently conceived method of dating prehistoric ceramics by measuring how much water weight they’ve gained over time. The researchers are still refining the method, but thanks to the grant, they were able to quickly make progress in transforming the theory into practice.

“There’s so little money in archaeology that they never fund risky stuff,” says Lipo. “But they had this windfall and needed to spend it, so we were able to try something entirely new and outside the box, something that had this groundbreaking potential. And ultimately that’s where the big returns are—when you take some risk.”

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These high-risk investments were even more common in green energy. The stimulus funded a new agency to steer federal money into potentially transformational new technology. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, modeled after the maverick defense research agency DARPA, would fund only projects that could potentially revolutionize energy, says Grunwald.

“That’s their whole mantra, that they’re not looking for incremental improvements—game-changers only,” Grunwald says. “They knew some of it wasn’t going to work, but if some of it did, it would have a major impact in getting us away from fossil fuels.”

So obsessed was the agency with fostering innovation that it created an entirely new scientific discipline, electrofuels, on the idea that it might be possible to make biofuel without photosynthesis. They wrote up a request for proposals and got interest from researchers from all over science. Two years later, the head of ARPA-E was holding a vial of electrofuel, Grunwald says.

“There’s still all kinds of questions about if it can scale up, but it definitely works,” he says. “And it was just this crazy idea that a couple of these bureaucrats had.”

Another crazy idea came out of Johns Hopkins University, where cosmologist Charles Bennett conceived of a telescope that could detect ripples in gravity. If it succeeds, it would substantiate inflation theory—the idea that the universe expanded from infinitesimal to astronomical in its first trillionth of a trillionth of a second.

Like most other researchers who received government funding after the recession, Bennett can’t say whether his group would have received the grant even without the windfall stimulus dollars.

“The fact that they had a considerable bit of extra money to give away certainly helped the odds,” he says. “There’s no doubt there’s a good deal of extra science that’s being accomplished because of the stimulus.”

So exactly how much extra science? What quantity of innovation was induced by that big dose of public funds? And was it worth the extra public debt? Those are fuzzy questions, and we may never have adequate answers to them.

On the other hand, thanks to the stimulus, we may finally answer the question of what happened in the universe’s first trillionth of a trillionth of a second.

Katie Worth is a freelance journalist based in Santiago, Chile. You can follow her on Twitter at @katieworth.

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