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John H. Marburger, III

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House's Science Cuts Threaten Our Future

Posted: 04/07/11 11:40 AM ET

When Newt Gingrich asked physicist-congressman Vern Ehlers to update "Science, the Endless Frontier" - the pathbreaking vision for post-World War II science - Ehlers called his own 1998 report "Unlocking our Future." Ehlers perceived that the enormous potential benefits of science demanded a stable and thoughtful federal science investment to unlock them. He could hardly have imagined that Congress might someday propose the reverse - to lock up the future by suspending critical parts of the nation's technical machinery that we need to survive in an increasingly complex and volatile world.

It is well understood that reining in the uncontrolled growth of mandatory outlays - more than 60% of the total budget - is a necessary ingredient of a sustainable budget. Right now, however, cuts are focusing on non-security domestic outlays, which represent only 13% of spending. H.R. 1, the House-passed continuing resolution for funding government for the remaining six months of the current fiscal year, would destabilize major parts of critically important governmental machinery, including science. While science is generally well-regarded by the public and by both major parties, these cuts signal a deep misunderstanding of its critical role in our economy.

Indeed, the fiscal year is half over and the 'lock-up' has begun. Work vital to our future national well-being has been interrupted by six short-term continuing budget resolutions, each one undermining the labor of decades. If the cuts included in H.R. 1 are enacted, the interruption, and the damage, will be long-term.

Science is not a luxury; it reaches deep into the national infrastructure - economic, physical, and intellectual - that makes modern civilization possible. It operates at every step of the development of cures for disease and new approaches to energy independence. Most scientific research performed in the nation's laboratories - academic, industrial, or federal - is 'trouble-shooting' research where highly trained men and women puzzle out unexpected occurrences of every kind and build a knowledge base available to other scientists, engineers, and innovators throughout the economy. Economists estimate that approximately half of post-WWII economic growth is directly attributable to R&D-fueled technological progress.

The U.S. excels at this kind of work, partly because at the most challenging level we combine it with advanced education. The largest fraction of federal research funds awarded to universities goes to support graduate students and postdocs who conduct research and then transfer their cutting edge knowledge to industry "on two legs." During their studies, guided by professors, they immerse themselves in the details of prior knowledge and of experiments they design and build to solve puzzles and cut through to new solutions. It is no accident that high-value-added industries cluster around research universities. They can find solutions to problems through access to the nation's most skilled and motivated people, and they recruit them as employees.

Other countries split education from research functions, which are performed in separate publicly financed institutes, missing half the value of the U.S. approach. Most are now "reforming" toward our model.

Federally funded institutions in the U.S. play a different role. The Department of Energy's Office of Science laboratories provide investigators with access to large, expensive equipment like accelerators, or bright x-ray or neutron sources indispensable for seeing how biological and inorganic materials work at the smallest scales. Users come to these and other federal facilities from hundreds of industrial, government and academic institutions. These labs have filled the vacuum left by the demise of formerly great industrial laboratories, most notoriously AT&T's Bell Labs.

Yet H.R. 1 would force these labs to curtail operations and in some cases to shut down for the remainder of the fiscal year. Science cannot perform its vital and ubiquitous functions in society if scientists are not working. Handing out pink slips at the core of our innovation machinery simply hollows out our ability to grow our economy and compete globally.

Many universities that conduct high-end federally funded research are reeling from the recent recession, state budget cuts, and a growing burden of regulation. All of them are struggling to maintain capabilities built up painfully, and I must say patriotically, over decades to respond to urgent regional and national problems.

In the negotiations now underway to determine what share of needed budget cuts must fall to the tiny and already beleaguered domestic discretionary budget, the role of scientific research must be acknowledged for what it is: the key to our nation's future. A seriously broken political process already endangers that future. It's time for Congress and the President to approve legislation for the remainder of this year that includes responsible funding for science to help build a better America.

The author, Vice President for Research at Stony Brook University in New York, is former Science Advisor to George W. Bush and co-editor of "The Science of Science Policy: a Handbook," Stanford University Press, 2011.