A Head-on Approach to Green-based Prosperity

As our nation struggles with the global economic crisis, President-elect Obama and Congress must find the right measures to stimulate the economy today and invest wisely to create sustained prosperity. Obama recognizes an extraordinary opportunity exists to restart the economy and combat the threat of global warming by launching a green New Deal, but our long-term success greatly depends on educating skilled workers for new technical fields.

Obama has outlined an immediate plan to create 2.5 million jobs through green-based initiatives, such as building wind farms and solar panels. This first step must be complemented with a long-term strategy that improves the environmental and economic sustainability of our nation.

Through a national green initiative, centered at our public research universities, we can meet this challenge and emerge with a more sustainable environment and economy in the short and longer term.

This national green initiative, which would be launched in coordination with the flagship research universities across the country, would have three parts but one simple goal — building the human and capital infrastructure necessary to compete in the decades ahead, while simultaneously infusing millions of dollars into the private sector right away in building the facilities needed to create tomorrow’s green technology breakthroughs.

The federal government would create a loan-forgiveness program that would allow students in science, technology, engineering, and math to have their student loans partially or completely forgiven in return for a multi-year commitment to teaching in these fields in K-12 schools. Every state is facing shortages in qualified teachers, and at a time when the job market is increasingly difficult, there’s never been a better time to encourage bright, young people to become teachers.

To educate these students, each state’s public research university would develop a proposal to build or renovate the laboratories and classrooms necessary to train both workers and educators in math and sciences as well as environmental sciences and related fields. These facilities would drive innovation and research breakthroughs as well as provide valuable learning space. To support this, the federal government would establish a $50 billion fund for such construction across the nation, and encourage universities to match these federal funds with state and private support. At the same time, the universities would be required to plan to work with the educational systems in their state to increase the numbers of students in these fields, and to offer current teachers access to these facilities for improved training.

For this plan to work, these efforts must be aimed at improving the learning environment across the state, and our public research universities are uniquely positioned to drive this effort.

Each of these construction projects must meet the latest green-building standards, and the bid process should require that local workers in each of the states be employed on these projects — thereby training a whole new cadre of workers in the latest sustainable technologies. In addition, faculty at these universities should be directly involved in the project development to ensure that not only are these facilities as green as possible, but that they meet the teaching and research needs of our next generation of students and teachers, as well as for training our workforce of the future.

While this idea is, in many ways, very simple, it will require our government and universities to work closely together, to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and to move right away on these projects. It will also require our universities to fully engage the community colleges and other higher-educational institutions in a partnership.

We must, as a nation, address head-on the issue of energy self-sufficiency while combating global climate change. We must create jobs and financial security now, even as we attempt to prepare for an uncertain future.-

Robert C. Holub is chancellor of UMass Amherst.