Editorial: $321bn... give or take a billion

It's a lot of money. And it's roughly what governments around the world plan to pump into the science, engineering and technology; money that will be coming to a grant or a contract near you soon. It's part of what you may have heard referred to in economics lingo as 'quantitative easing' or 'fiscal stimulus'.

The massive bailouts for the banks have got the most attention, but, as you will see in this issue, public investment in tangible things and brave new businesses for the future is huge too.

We got the number on this issue's cover by doing some quick currency conversions and totting up those figures in dollars from one of the tables in an OECD report that came out last month. This report outlines the economic crisis from a world viewpoint, looks at its effects so far, outlines countries' policy responses to the crisis and attempts to quantify them as well as it is able.

You'll see selected numbers, all of them huge, appearing through this issue. The report does of course slap health warnings on its figures all the way through: spending plans are still evolving; the details are yet to come; many have yet to be ratified; they are for differing time periods - there are many reasons to be cautious.

Nevertheless, the figures provide an idea of scale. Indeed, the $321bn on our cover doesn't even tell the whole story because it's just the sum from around a dozen countries. It doesn't include Japan, Spain, Denmark, Mexico, New Zealand or even the UK. It doesn't include Brazil's $152bn stimulus package, Russia's $101bn or China's massive but secretive $585bn.

So why the massive investment in engineering and technology? The OECD report identifies various strands and themes running through the stimulus packages. Governments, once they've ploughed emergency money into financial institutions, are looking for investment that will make a recovery sustainable, moving from old infrastructure to new and taking this opportunity to really build something for the future.

Three broad themes stand out: digital networks (broadband and how to use it); climate change (how to slow it and how to deal with it); and innovation (R&D, new products and new businesses).

That means bigger fibre-optic networks and faster broadband services: on p22 we look at one of the biggest investments, which is in Australia, and our special eight-page global report on the 'networked recovery' starts on p69. But governments also want to link this ICT investment to physical infrastructure like buildings, transport systems, health and electricity grids to make them 'smart' and get more out of them.

The green theme of course includes help and encouragement for more fuel-efficient cars (p48) and renewable energy (p46) but also sea walls and new railway networks. Our tour of the biggest projects starts on p16 and takes in many of these large engineering infrastructure projects.

The crisis is already affecting R&D spending and companies find it harder to invest in innovation during a downturn. Entrepreneurship becomes harder as venture capital dries up and the barriers to entry arise. Cost-driven layoffs in high-tech industries like aerospace or pharmaceuticals and knowledge-intensive industries such as finance make skilled people unproductive through unemployment.

Do you have a market-changing innovation that your think may help to lift us out of the downturn? If so, let us know because we'll be compiling a top ten next year.

Perhaps engineers can sort out the mess. But did they create it in the first place? Read our feature on engineers in the city (p25) to make up your mind!

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