Stimulating Science

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

The sun rises behind windmills at a wind farm, February 9, 2011.

Billions of stimulous dollars were plowed into the young field of green energy.

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The general public may remember the Great Recession as the time when their wages were frozen, their retirement investments took a dive, and their brother was unemployed for two years. But for science, the memories will be of better solar panel technology, a leap toward an HIV vaccine, and a hive of robotic bees.

Those are some of the advances that were made when the government plunked megabucks into science while trying to reverse an economic downturn. In early 2009, with the nation’s economy and morale zipped into a downward double helix, President Obama managed to propel a major spending package through the U.S. Congress. (Try to imagine that happening today without guffawing.) Of the $800 billion in stimulus funds, roughly a third went to tax cuts and another third to social services programs for the newly broke. The last third attempted to create jobs and invest in infrastructure and innovation by funding shovel-ready projects—or in the case of science, microscope-ready projects.

About $15 billion was distributed to researchers and labs in the sciences, and billions more were plowed into the young field of green energy. The money went in thousands of directions: The National Science Foundation bought itself a long-coveted Arctic research vessel. NASA spent $160 million designing its next-generation crewed space shuttle. Practically every research university in America landed new lab equipment. The cancer genome atlas was expanded. Electric vehicles were improved. Duck penises were measured.

Yes, it’s true, duck penises were measured. (They’re much longer than you might expect.) Also in the category of public funds stimulating the economy in ways that angered conservatives: a study on how men feel about condoms. Another that gave cocaine to monkeys.  A third teaching South African men to wash their genitals after sex. (While these studies may sound frivolous, their authors said they were worth the investment because they contributed to crucial public health research. Or, in the case of duck genitalia, the studies provided insight into evolution and are just plain fascinating.)

For every scientific project that drew an askance look, there were many that even conservatives would begrudgingly grant should benefit the country in the long run: The world’s largest photovoltaic solar plant and wind farm were financed. The nation’s nuclear transuranic waste was relocated to better facilities. Research tested new treatment strategies for Alzheimer’s disease. One study followed thousands of pregnant women of varying ethnicities and will eventually establish new nationwide standards on fetal growth.

With a handful of exceptions, the stimulus grant money all had to be spent by this past Monday. Any unspent money must be returned to the government. The folks who worked under Vice President Biden to execute and oversee the stimulus have already moved on to other projects. The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board—the agency created to investigate the waste of stimulus dollars—is now mostly monitoring Hurricane Sandy spending instead.

Now that the stimulus has wound down, the question hangs: Did it stimulate? Naturally, the government says yes. The main goal of the stimulus was to create jobs, and it clearly did that—as many as 3.3 million of them in its first two years, according to the Congressional Budget Office—although whether it did so efficiently enough has been the subject of robust debate among economists.

The stimulus also had the secondary and somewhat more amorphous goal of spurring advances in science and health care. Did it do that? So far, answers to that question have been piecemeal, mostly focusing on the efficacy of individual programs.

But the agencies that received and doled out the funds say the results speak for themselves. The National Institutes of Health, which received more than $10 billion in recovery funds, point to new strategies for the treatment of alcoholism, better approaches to combat childhood obesity, the isolation of the gene that causes the debilitating Kabuki syndrome, and a new national database for autism research—all of which owe their existence to the recovery funds.

Sally Rockey, deputy director for extramural research at NIH, says the stimulus grants created an average of six to seven jobs each, but that the real legacy of the stimulus will be research that improves the health of people around the world.

“That benefit that may not be measurable right now, but it will certainly be measurable in the future,” Rockey says.

Had the projects not been funded by the government through the stimulus, it’s possible they wouldn’t have been funded for quite a while, says Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal, a book about the creation and influence of the stimulus bill. In 2009, investors and venture capitalists were in wait-and-see mode, and corporate America dropped much of its research budget.

“So not only was this the biggest one-time investment in science since World War II, but it was an increase instead of a massive decrease,” Grunwald says.

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.”

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.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the government shutdown.