THE BLOG
06/19/2013 11:48 am ET | Updated Aug 19, 2013

Innovation Austerity: Penny-wise and Pound-foolish

When UC Berkeley professor and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for proving the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, it was a great testament to his remarkable talent. But, to be fair, he could not have done it alone.

Public investments in technology and research capacity at facilities like LBNL have played a critical role in our country's scientific advancement. And that is reason enough to be concerned that misguided federal budget cuts to science research cast real doubt on America's ability to produce the next Saul Perlmutter.

Unnecessary and onerous across-the-board budget cuts, known as 'the sequester,' have taken roughly $12.5 billion from research activities this year alone -- nearly 9 percent of the entire federal research budget. This is particularly worrisome considering the uniquely pernicious effects of budget cuts on scientific research.

For example, since many research projects require lengthy and extended work, any interruptions in funding can set research back years. And because decision-makers aim to minimize these sorts of interruptions, they may instead decide not to fund young scientists with promising new ideas whose projects are just beginning, pushing them to take their valuable peer-reviewed research to economic competitors like China -- which increased its research investment by 18 percent last year -- or quit the scientific field altogether.

As our economy continues to recover from the 2008 economic crisis, we cannot afford these drastic budget cuts that jeopardize America's leading role in scientific research. Instead, America needs a bold new approach to ignite our innovative capacity and prioritize the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century global economy.

First, it is time to greatly enhance public-private partnerships and eliminate barriers to academics and small businesses and corporations at user facilities like LBNL and other research centers. Doing so will maximize the benefits of the technology and infrastructure at these facilities and drive our innovative economy forward in the Bay Area and across the nation.

Second, we must greatly expand basic research so that we can effectively address emerging challenges. A particularly relevant case in point is the forthcoming development of LBNL's Richmond Bay Campus. There, LBNL and UC Berkeley will collaborate with leaders in the bioscience private industry to produce research that may hold promising potential for our future -- like renewable energies, badly-needed vaccines, or advances that expand worldwide access to fresh water. This sort of basic research should not only be supported but expanded and replicated widely in research universities and government laboratories, including those focused on computational, social, biomedical, and life sciences.

Third, it is crucial that we develop a workforce capable of meeting the technological needs of the future. Broadening the availability of high-quality K-12 science and engineering education, utilizing new technologies and research methods to solve chronic educational challenges, and setting high standards that prepare students for careers in advanced fields and focus on critical thinking skills are essential. This includes dramatically expanding research opportunities available to aspiring scientists -- currently, only 7,000 graduate and post-doctoral students utilize national laboratory facilities and just 17 percent of new peer-reviewed National Science Foundation grant applications receive funding. This needs to change.

This Congress has made some very bad choices lately when it comes to de-investing in our future. While some say we must simply make due, reducing funds for cutting-edge research has a long-lasting negative impact on economic growth that we can't afford. America must change course now to ensure that America can produce the next Saul Perlmutter and the innovation that drives our nation and our economy forward.

Congressman George Miller represents the 11th District of California and is the senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee.

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