A scientist preparing a genetic test.
A scientist preparing a genetic test. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: The timing on this one was less than ideal, coming as it did on the day when President Obama called for that federal pay freeze. But top White House science advisors said today we need to triple our spending on energy research, bump it up to $16 billion a year. Just recently, the president's Fiscal Reform Commission mentioned science as something we ought to invest in. But no recommendations on what technology to fund, energy or otherwise. Maybe that's because it can be tough to know what to bet on.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner reports.

Sarah Gardner: Charles Vest has a few words for you on the economic benefits of federally funded science:

Charles Vest: The computer, the laser, the Internet, the fundamentals of global positioning system, deployment of the World Wide Web, most of modern medicine...

Vest heads the National Academy of Engineering.

Vest: There's not a job in the United States today that it does not directly depend on one or more of those things that came out of these research investments.

A relatively small investment too: Less than 4 percent of all federal spending. But that spending can change the world.

A National Science Foundation grant for digital library research helped create Google, says Christopher Hill. He teaches public policy and technology at George Mason University.

Christopher Hill: Google has changed the way all of us do business in many aspects of our lives. The question is, could we have figured out in advance that that little NSF grant was going to result in the creation of a multi-hundred billion dollar corporation? My guess is no.

That's why Charles Vest argues the government should spread its science bets widely.

Vest: We don't know exactly what will be next. Will it be synthetic biology that drives this? Will it be nanotechnology? We don't know. So we have to invest in a pretty broad portfolio.

Daniel Sarewitz is co-director of the consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He says when every federal dollar counts and we need a quick economic payoff, we should shore up basic science that improves on existing technologies.

Daniel Sarewitz: I certainly think energy is the most obvious example. We have, for many reasons, an urgent need to get off our dependence on hydrocarbons. There's lots of alternative energy possibilities out there.

So, that might mean research that helps make solar power cheaper than coal, or electric car batteries smaller. And Sarewitz thinks the Department of Defense might be the smartest place to do it.

Sarewitz: Historically, that's been what has driven new frontiers of technology. DoD first uses them, they're expensive but they test them out, help get the kinks out of them.

Then private companies take it from there. But that debate may have to wait. Most scientists are just worried about protecting R&D from an incoming Congress intent on slashing all federal spending.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner