Shortchanging Science

Congress Shows Little Understanding in Cutting Research

In an act of epic short-sightedness, the United States Congress recently passed a budget resolution which calls for a one-third reduction in the financing of non-military science over the next seven years. Science is not the only victim of the Republicans' bold and often rash attempt to balance the budget, but it may well be the most important.

According to a report authored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the new budget contains "the most significant across-the-board funding cuts to the research-and-development enterprise in the post-World War II era."

If Americans are not as alarmed as they should be, perhaps it is because scientific research and development is a relatively abstract thing. After all, who pays attention to the latest results of experiments in fusion when they're worrying about affording health care or sending their children to college?

But our representatives are supposed to know better, and they seem to be dangerously unaware of the vital role that science plays in maintaining the economic well-being of an industrialized nation. In a global society that is becoming increasingly technological in nature, nations with a head start on scientific innovation will see money flow into their economics from the coffers of those nations which lag behind. Anyone who has taken "Ec 10" will know that new technology is the primary way by which an economy can increase its output given a limited amount of resources. Perhaps the most obvious example is Japan. By pioneering, over the last few decades, new technologies and new methods of production Japanese industry has become the world leader in many markets.

To see how the recent cuts will affect the U.S. economy, it is only necessary to examine some of the cuts themselves. For instance, the United States Geological Survey has been forced to truncate a program dedicated to mapping the country's geological resources. Hydrogen fusion, the holy grail of energy-production technology, has been placed farther out of reach by cuts that will prevent the Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory from building a new experimental reactor. And funding for similar research ongoing at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories is currently uncertain.

Additionally, Congress eliminated the $466 million dollar Advanced Technology Program, designed to assist private industry in the production of new technology.

Finally, transcending mere economic stupidity, Congress cut funds to organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which investigates environmental concerns such as global warming and ozone depletion. And NASA's loss of $716 million will jeopardize the Mission to Planet Earth program, which uses satellites to track changes in the planet's ecosystems. I suppose Congress' reasoning is that unforeseen environmental catastrophes will take our minds off the national debt.

It should be noted that there is a legitimate debate over whether Congress should continue to fund "large science," such as the proposed space station or the 10 billion dollar supercollider program, which was scrapped last year. Many within the scientific community argue that the money would be better spent on so called "small science," typically research ventures at universities and government labs with budgets in the millions to hundreds of millions of dollars. Indeed, the money needed for one large project can fund myriads of smaller ones.

But Congress' new policy of "less science" is simply irrational. The reasons behind the cuts are many, but not terribly complex. One main factor is the end of the cold war, during which scientific progress was inextricably linked with military prowess and hence political might. Another factor can be traced to the trascible American citizen, who demands a balanced budget but refuses to accept tax hikes. Having come to power on such a platform, the Republicans must now cut left and right and carelessly. However, our lawmakers must realize that their attempt to attain short-term economic stability will result in a long-term decline in America's financial health, as our exports become limited to bad movies and fast food.

As unfortunate as the recent cuts are, they seem unlikely to go away. If Congress cannot be convinced to maintain steady funding for American science, perhaps they could at least exercise more care in choosing which programs to cut. Dr. Arati Prabhakar, the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, recently said that "if the current Congress has its way, it will turn the clock back 20 years and put technological innovation on the shelf." But at least we'll have family values.