Science in America Competes for Its Life

President George W. Bush signs H.R. 2272, The America Competes Act, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007, in the Oval Office.

Normally I try to not get too political on this blog, because I’m pretty sure the FBI is monitoring it (I also try not to be too sarcastic, but sometimes it’s called for). This blog is a representative of the American Physical Society, which has a strong and respectable political image to uphold. But even the president of the American Physical Society Arthur Bienenstock had no qualms about waving his figurative fist at Congress and the White House for cutting nearly a billion dollars in science funding from the FY08 budget. Earlier this month he sent out an email to all APS members expressing his frustration at the budget cuts, and urging members to write to Congress and ask for supplemental science funding. It is with this in mind that I write this entry with both freedom and restraint.

The budget cut was simply a blind-sided attack on science, especially after the strong declarations made by the America Competes Act. National agencies had already planned to continue with at least the same funding as last year, if not more. The sudden shockwave of decreased funding forced them to not only cease work on new projects, but stop current projects before their scheduled finish dates. This includes abrupt and unexpected cut backs on projects that impact national issues like climate change, alternative fuels, and cyber security. Not to mention jobs.

Cutting out a billion dollars from science funding the same year Congress and the White House declare that America needs to get more competitive with rising international science and education programs, is what I’d call a lack of understanding. I’d also call it a slap in the face, a kick in the groin, and absurd. It’s like handing a starving man a can of peanuts, only to have two fake snakes jump out of it. The joke is lost, and it’s just mean.

The America Competes Act at its best is a strong initiative that promotes science and science education in America; the project aims to give every child in America the best science education we can, and to reward risk and innovation in science research. At its worst, it seems nationalistic. The proposals are stuck somewhere between setting a new bar of quality (despite where other countries are at), and a childish desire to keep America numero uno in every event on the playground. And apparently members of the administration have watched one too many inspirational football movies, and need only a motivational speech to win the big game. Scientists, on the other hand, need teachers, labs, and salaries.

Primarily, what kind of message are we sending to the children we’re trying to teach math and science to if we won’t even fund jobs in those areas?

These cuts also bring up the interesting debate about where we’d like to see our national funds go. Speaking as a scientist, if the government wanted to cut money from science funding to ensure that every child in America had *good* health insurance, or that every person in the world who asked for it could have access to clean water, I’d be all for it. In an ideal moral setting, purely humanitarian efforts should come before science, but also before art, and music, and nuclear arms. But the world’s a bit more complicated, and purely humanitarian efforts don’t really exist. So in this imperfect world, it’s important to realize that science is one of the primary reasons why our country is in a position to make humanitarian efforts. It’s one of the main reasons why health care is getting better and more accessible every year. Science fuels countless aspects of our economy from countless angles. Economic competitiveness, technological advancement, and our overall national mindset are all significantly impacted by the state of science in our nation.

And besides the iPods and top-notch PhD programs, science is one of the last active proponents of logic, and for that reason alone we must save it.

The Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have all been allotted less money than in FY07, as opposed to promised increases. Damage to these organizations will also result in cuts to university proposals. The American group working on the International Linear Collider was given only a quarter of what it expected. Because America’s contribution to the ILC project is so large, and because Britain also pulled out their funding this year, it’s unknown what the fate of the entire project will be. SLAC was forced to suddenly cut 125 jobs, with more on the way, and it looks like FermiLab is in a similar situation. While this affects the entire scientific community, high energy physics seems to have been hit the hardest.

This week Arthur Bienenstock sent out another email, thanking those 3,000 members for writing to congress, and encouraging other members to do so (this was still a very low percentage, out of 46,000 APS members). In addition, the DOE and NIST released reports describing the impact of the budget cuts. It was pretty consistently negative.

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