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A Great Time to be A Scientist

January 29, 2009

In January I was contacted by an editor from a major national news magazine to suggest a “dream Government-stimulus package” for President-elect Barack Obama. Before I tell you about my suggestion, I’d like to pause for a moment and direct your attention to the request itself - because I think it’s an interesting example of how this country has already shifted its perspective since last November’s elections.

This editor could have turned in any direction for eager respondents for this question, but she saw editorial value in the opinion of an engineer from MIT. For those of us who do scientific research - to say nothing of those who simply think science should be an important part of public-policy decisions - it seems we are headed in a direction where science and scientific credibility matter. MIT’s reputation in engineering and science, and for their application to environmental sustainability, economics and public policy, has always made it a place from which the world expects great ideas. Apparently now, in this new context, we can also expect to be called in our collective efforts to forge a sense of new direction.

So here’s what I suggested: Stimulate worker productivity and the economy at the same time while reducing our damage to the environment, by addressing the country’s need for faster, more efficient, and more affordable high-speed railways. By connecting major metropolitan centers in the northeast, city centers and airports in the midwest, and large sprawling communities in the far west, we can create opportunities for enormous numbers of Americans to travel to and from work, and around the country and the world, more quickly and efficiently.

To address the challenges presented by the landscape, climates, and other issues unique to the continental US, the government cannot assume that current materials, transportation technologies, and manufacturing processes will generate the best results. They must invest in our research enterprise to ensure that the very latest technologies, novel infrastructure platforms, and materials are used to move people and goods more efficiently. (It’s obvious, but worth noting, that the US has a great deal of catching up to do on the issue of rail transportation generally. Europeans have been using trains as part of more carefully considered national transportation systems for a long time. The Shanghai-Hangzhou Maglev Train in China is a marvel of modern engineering, capable of traveling at more than 300 miles per hour.)

Railroads and specific suggestions aside, the incoming administration needs a grand plan for our collective future–one that will galvanize the talents and enthusiasm of current and future scientists and engineers and support them in their quest to address the major issues of our time. Solutions to the challenges of energy, environmental sustainability, and transportation will not come easily. So, too, are the political challenges of reversing the last decade’s decline in funding for scientific research. President Obama must bring a long-term, science-oriented perspective into government, and he must quickly and decisively reverse the more recent, opposing trends. The US’s economic leadership has always depended on its ability to foster and maintain an ecosystem of scholarship and innovation in all fields. This system–our system–is perilously close to a tipping point. We need leadership that will invest in and help create a future as brilliant as our past.

Will my suggestion for a new railway system go anywhere? Will we soon travel from Cambridge to New York, or between the city centers of San Francisco and San Diego, more quickly by train than airplane? It’s hard to say, but I’m glad they’re asking. You can read the resulting article here.

Subra Suresh
Dean of Engineering
Ford Professor of
Engineering, MIT
Credit: Justin Knight

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