Sequester Could Devastate Scientific Research

The head men of the three most prestigious US national laboratories say the sequester will devastate scientific research in this country for decades to come.

laboratory-beakers

The head men of the three most prestigious US national laboratories say the sequester will devastate scientific research in this country for decades to come.

The Atlantic (“The Sequester Is Going to Devastate U.S. Science Research for Decades“):

 Most of the talk about sequestration has focused on its immediate impacts — layoffs, furloughs, and cancelled White House tours in the days and weeks ahead. But one severe impact of the automatic spending cuts will only be felt years — or even decades — in the future, when the nation begins to feel the loss of important new scientific ideas that now will not be explored, and of brilliant young scientists who now will take their talents overseas or perhaps even abandon research entirely.

Less than one percent of the federal budget goes to fund basic science research — $30.2 billion out of the total of $3.8 trillion President Obama requested in fiscal year 2012. By slashing that fraction even further, the government will achieve short-term savings in millions this year, but the resulting gaps in the innovation pipeline could cost billions of dollars and hurt the national economy for decades to come.

As directors of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, we have a responsibility both to taxpayers and to the thousands of talented and committed men and women who work in our labs. We are doing everything we can to make sure our scientists and engineers can keep working on our nation’s most pressing scientific problems despite the cuts. It’s not yet clear how much funding the National Labs will lose, but it will total tens of millions of dollars. Interrupting — or worse, halting — basic research in the physical, biological, and computational sciences would be devastating, both for science and for the many U.S. industries that rely on our national laboratory system to power their research and development efforts.

Instead, this drop in funding will force us to cancel all new programs and research initiatives, probably for at least two years. This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the word races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities.

New ideas, new insights, new discoveries — these are the lifeblood of science and the foundation of America’s historic culture of innovation and ingenuity. The science community recognizes the importance of those new ideas, so we have systems in place to make sure great new ideas get a chance to thrive. Every ongoing federally funded science program is reviewed regularly to make sure it’s on track and likely to yield results. Each year, stalled programs are terminated to make room for more promising lines of research. Under sequestration, we will continue to review and cull unsuccessful research efforts, but we won’t be able to bring in new ideas to take their place.

It’s so obviously a stupid way to proceed. And, indeed, the whole idea behind the sequester was to be too stupid to enact. And, yet, here we are.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    I am proud, as an American, that we give our richest citizens tax cuts instead of squandering money on stupid stuff like science.

  2. Dan Collins says:

    The rate of growth of government debt, and of the federal government generally, has been unsustainable, and many of us have been repeating this obvious fact for a very long time. Surely there must have been many people within the scientific community who were aware of it. The President promised, if I recall correctly, to halve the debt, but instead grew government, because government workers are his natural constituency.

    Nobody seems to be talking about excising his numerous extra-constitutional czars and their bureaucrats as a cost-saving measure. They were a work-around on the Constitution from the get go, but one that apparently we were obliged to underwrite. His wonks then poured $90 billion into so-called green energy projects, via guaranteed loans, most of which have failed or are failing. The Green Collar jobs revolution has not materialized, though Krugman and similar Keynesian drabs will tell us that it’s because we haven’t had enough market intervention. Much capital was expended on the ridiculous Cash-for-Clunkers program, and each Chevy Volt is subsidized to the tune of $25k or more, so that rather well-off people can benefit from the fuel savings.

    This administration invited Mexican political operatives to take part in astroturfed pushes for immigration reform, while at the same time advertising US welfare benefits in Mexico, and neglecting to collect any data on how many illegal immigrants are receiving those benefits at what cost. The President and the OMB refused, despite the imperious ‘shall’ of the Constitution, to submit a budget for four years, preferring, in the admission of Tim Geithner, to criticize Ryan’s. The President scuttled an agreement in principle hammered out by Congressional Republicans and Democrats, because it didn’t give him all of the new revenues that he wanted; he decided he wanted more at the last moment, and queered the deal.

    Touting $3 in cuts for every $1 in new revenue, he wants more (ever more) revenue while proposing no cuts. He will not propose cuts because he does not wish to offend his base. He will not specify them, because he does not want to have to make choices. So it was that the administration proposed the sequester, and so it is that it has become ‘enacted.’ Remember, this is a man who promised while campaigning for a first term to go through the budget line by line. The chronicle of absurd lies that he has insultingly foisted on us in the course of his malfeasance includes the recent cant that the closure of the White House to tours was concocted by the Secret Service, but includes much more, as I’m sure you are aware, James. He lied, he lies, and will continue lying, in hopes that such vague formulae as ” the whole idea behind the sequester was to be too stupid to enact” will give him cover, and that the defunding of scientific research will land the blame squarely on others’ shoulders, though he himself has abdicated any role in determining where the cuts shall fall. He bought a balloon mortgage, because it was too hard to make a responsible choice. Providing cover for the Great Squanderer seems hardly a recipe for fostering responsible government.

  3. JKB says:

    for the many U.S. industries that rely on our national laboratory system to power their research and development efforts.

    So they are just shills for the 1%? Why can’t these US industries fund their own research with out taking money out of the pocket of the poor?

    I guess it was a mistake to funnel tens of millions of dollars in the Department of Energy to failed “alternative” energy companies to “enter production” of un-economic scientific processes? Oh what these young scientists could do with that Solyndra money that was funneled to the Obama crony.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    The two comments by Dan Collins and JKB are so factually incorrect that I don’t even know where to begin evicerating them.
    I’ll just make the general statement that if your arguments are based on total BS…then your arguments are total BS.
    Of course we have all seen JKB ignore facts when confronted with them so this is no suprise at all.
    I would just add that if you have to sit there and make shit up to support your ideological point of view…then I would think that somewhere in the back of your brain you would begin to question you ideological point of view.
    The fact that you seemingly don’t has to make everyone else reading your comments wonder.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JKB:

    So they are just shills for the 1%? Why can’t these US industries fund their own research with out taking money out of the pocket of the poor?

    So much ignorance in just 2 little sentences. No wonder you vote GOP.

  6. Scott says:

    We are talking basic research here, not research necessarily tied to products. That isn’t done by private industry anymore. There used to be a lot of basic research accomplished by the private sector (Bell Labs and IBM come to mind); however, since the rise of financial engineering in the 70s and 80s, the idea of long term investment with only a small probability of payback is now considered bad business. The only place for basic research is the federal government.

    BTW, Bell Labs was a great research institute because it had a near monopoly on communications and could charge more to fund the research. After the deregulation and breakup of that monopoly, Bell Labs as a national asset declined.

    The problem of private basic research is analogous to training. It used to be that corporations had extensive training programs because the norm was that people stay for a lifetime. Now training has been dumped back on individuals and local, state, and federal governments.

  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    It’s a cute blog post headline and of course a cognitively dissonant post and underlying article.

    In related news:

    “Government Workers Claim Cuts to Government Spending Harmful”

    Or:

    “K Street Lobbyists Opposed to Lobbying and Campaign Finance Reforms”

    I mean, come on, we know the academe often is the bastion of the naive, but exactly how naive are we around here?

    Scientific research funding doesn’t need to be based upon federal taxpayer dollars. There are private enterprises, state tax dollars, and of course, ironically enough, private and public school endowment funds. If for example Lawrence Livermore Labs has a funding shortfall they can make up the gap seven ways from Sunday. How about tapping into U.C. Berkeley’s endowment fund? Or VC funding supplied from Silicon Valley companies, or from Wall Street? All they have to do is make the case the research actually is worthwhile, rather than blindly sucking from the public teat. Go figure.

  8. Septimius says:

    Shorter. The federal government can never, ever, ever, ever, ever, never, ever cut science funding. Not 2%. Not 1%. Not one dollar. To do so would devestate humanity and throw us back into the dark ages.

  9. wr says:

    @Dan Collins: “The rate of growth of government debt, and of the federal government generally, has been unsustainable, and many of us have been repeating this obvious fact for a very long time.”

    Hey Dan — I know this is a concept that may shake your entire world view to its core, but just because you’ve been repeating a simple-minded bit of nonsense for a long time actually does not make it a fact.

  10. JKB says:

    Wait, some are taking this serious. This appeal to the damage of “US industries”, the halting of progress in science, and let’s not forget the children, those young scientists who will be hurt most of all.

    Come on, it basic BS about budget cuts.

    So are these scientists going to stop thinking if their funding is cut? Are Ph.D.s programmed to only work upon deposit of tax dollars? Sure they might be slowed, for need of some expensive test equipment but surely their brains will still work. And these young scientists (Ph.Ds), tossed out into the cruel world, will they simply not know what to do with their research skills if they can’t work at a national lab? I heard, but never met one government scientist, because after 5 years the lab director wouldn’t let her go out on anymore field camps until she’d processed, i.e., did the science, on all the data she’d collected over those 5 years.

    And what of these “US industries”? Will they simply close up shop if no more exciting research is hand fed to them? And when they shut down unsuccessful projects at the labs, why can’t they take the money saved and start new projects?

    And we shouldn’t forget, how much money DOE would have if they’d stuck with basic research and not tried to branch out into “production” of technology no self-respecting venture capitalist would touch with a 10 ft pole, i.e., considered not likely to become economically viable, also known as profitable.

  11. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    All they have to do is make the case the research actually is worthwhile, rather than blindly sucking from the public teat. Go figure.

    Spoken like someone who gets his idea of science research from comic books. You were a lawyer, right? Let me tell you: it shows.

  12. CB says:

    This thread could not be a more clear example of hippy punching, at the expense of every possible thing else. And its monumentally stupid. And kinda scary.

  13. john personna says:

    As an old chemist, I must protest any pro-science article headed by gratuitous use of glassware and food coloring.

  14. john personna says:

    @Dan Collins:

    I guess I’ll take the time.

    The rate of growth of government debt, and of the federal government generally, has been unsustainable, and many of us have been repeating this obvious fact for a very long time. Surely there must have been many people within the scientific community who were aware of it. The President promised, if I recall correctly, to halve the debt, but instead grew government, because government workers are his natural constituency.

    You could probably throw out that any head of the Executive Branch has a natural constituency in all those reporting to him. Eisenhower? Check.

    Who Is The Smallest Government Spender Since Eisenhower? Would You Believe It’s Barack Obama?

    That’s data, not token exchange in identity politics.

    (I was at a market yesterday and when presented with the tab, some guy ahead said “Obama will pay for it, he pays for everything else.” People nearby laughed nervously. Obviously that wasn’t funny, or a real joke. It was just this kind of token exchange in identity politics. It doesn’t have to make sense. It only has to signal membership in the group.)

    Nobody seems to be talking about excising his numerous extra-constitutional czars and their bureaucrats as a cost-saving measure. They were a work-around on the Constitution from the get go, but one that apparently we were obliged to underwrite. His wonks then poured $90 billion into so-called green energy projects, via guaranteed loans, most of which have failed or are failing. The Green Collar jobs revolution has not materialized, though Krugman and similar Keynesian drabs will tell us that it’s because we haven’t had enough market intervention. Much capital was expended on the ridiculous Cash-for-Clunkers program, and each Chevy Volt is subsidized to the tune of $25k or more, so that rather well-off people can benefit from the fuel savings.

    One of the earliest known usages of the term “czar” was for Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was named commissioner of baseball, with broad powers to clean up the sport after it had been dirtied by the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

    I’m afraid your hit list here is (a) typical of government since forever, and (b) small change. None of it reaches the high hundreds of billions you need to impact the budget. For that you need to look at Medicare, Social Security, or the military.

    This administration invited Mexican political operatives to take part in astroturfed pushes for immigration reform, while at the same time advertising US welfare benefits in Mexico, and neglecting to collect any data on how many illegal immigrants are receiving those benefits at what cost. The President and the OMB refused, despite the imperious ‘shall’ of the Constitution, to submit a budget for four years, preferring, in the admission of Tim Geithner, to criticize Ryan’s. The President scuttled an agreement in principle hammered out by Congressional Republicans and Democrats, because it didn’t give him all of the new revenues that he wanted; he decided he wanted more at the last moment, and queered the deal.

    That’s just stupid because both parties have been for free trade with Mexico. Free trade is mathematically equivalent to low cost immigration. In one case the worker is in Tijuana, the other he is in San Diego. BFD.

    Touting $3 in cuts for every $1 in new revenue, he wants more (ever more) revenue while proposing no cuts. He will not propose cuts because he does not wish to offend his base. He will not specify them, because he does not want to have to make choices. So it was that the administration proposed the sequester, and so it is that it has become ‘enacted.’ Remember, this is a man who promised while campaigning for a first term to go through the budget line by line. The chronicle of absurd lies that he has insultingly foisted on us in the course of his malfeasance includes the recent cant that the closure of the White House to tours was concocted by the Secret Service, but includes much more, as I’m sure you are aware, James. He lied, he lies, and will continue lying, in hopes that such vague formulae as ” the whole idea behind the sequester was to be too stupid to enact” will give him cover, and that the defunding of scientific research will land the blame squarely on others’ shoulders, though he himself has abdicated any role in determining where the cuts shall fall. He bought a balloon mortgage, because it was too hard to make a responsible choice. Providing cover for the Great Squanderer seems hardly a recipe for fostering responsible government.

    This is the mental and moral confusion of the modern conservative. It is a bleat that while you, who demand cuts but cannot name them, wait – someone else should do your job for you.

    If you want cuts, name cuts and present them to the American people.

    How hard is that?

  15. Scott says:

    @john personna: Yes, it’s missing the dry ice!

  16. wr says:

    @JKB: Yes, you’re absolutely right. That’s why independent researchers keep coming up with new antibiotics, even though there’s no money available for the research, since pharmaceuticals companies don’t see enough profit there.

    Wait a minute — there aren’t any new pharmaceuiticals?

    Young scientists with new degrees and big student loans can’t afford to do basic research on their own, with no paycheck, and in fact having to buy and stock their own labs?

    But the market says this is impossible! Surely when reality and the market disagree, reality must be wrong!

  17. An Interested Party says:

    Scientific research funding doesn’t need to be based upon federal taxpayer dollars.

    If ever there was a time when an idiot could not even grasp the irony of his very own statements, this one would definitely be it…I’m sure it’s lost on this dumb ass that the very vehicle he is using to make the ridiculous claim that scientific research doesn’t need government funding was itself created in part due to the government…

  18. swbarnes2 says:

    James, the party you vote for thinks science is Satanic. Why are you complaining? A government the size to drown in a bathtub can’t do any scientific research, and your conservative compatriots here agree that we should sit back and let private industry take the lead. So why are you of all people complaining?

  19. john personna says:

    @JKB:

    And we shouldn’t forget, how much money DOE would have if they’d stuck with basic research and not tried to branch out into “production” of technology no self-respecting venture capitalist would touch with a 10 ft pole, i.e., considered not likely to become economically viable, also known as profitable.

    For what it’s worth, this is something Jerry Taylor and Dan Becker agreed upon. Jerry Taylor was director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. Dan Becker was director for the Sierra Club’s global warming and energy program.

    Their join essay was called A Complete Waste of Energy

  20. john personna says:

    @swbarnes2:

    The Bush administration tapped a weird contradiction. They cut back on all kinds of science, and then sold a hugely expensive Mars mission because ….. “rah, America!”

    I bet to this day you’ll find a lot of uncritical thinkers who want to cut back on science, and go to Mars, both.

  21. Scot says:

    10’s of millions of dollars out of 30 billion and it will cripple us for decades? Give me a break. They don’t say how many scientists will be laid off. They don’t give any examples of programs that will be cut. Yet we are all supposed to believe this is a crisis? Based on this story I don’t see how anyone could have much of an issue one way or another.

  22. john personna says:

    @Scot:

    It might however be an example of the inexpensive and valuable being cut before the expensive and wasteful. Before the corn ethanol subsidy went down, it was a prime example:

    “Taxpayers directly paid over $30 billion for the ethanol tax credit that expired in December 2011, and legislation passed earlier this year secured another $2.2 billion in tax credits for renewable fuels producers.”

    Of course we still have those general farm subsidies:

    “But like most subsidies, and U.S. agricultural policy more broadly, the program benefits the few at the expense of everyone else. Each year, the federal government bestows $25 billion in handouts on the farm industry. Most of it goes to large agribusinesses and farmers who on average earn much more than the average American. According to one analysis, about three- fourths of all agriculture subsidies go to just 10 percent of the nation’s farms.”

    In a blanket sequester these are the way things break. We cut scientific research and farm subsidies more or less equally.

    That’s not optimal, in my humble opinion.

  23. john personna says:
  24. Scot says:

    @john personna: Can’t argue with you.

  25. anjin-san says:

    I guess the bridge to the 19th century was not sufficient. Now we are gunning for the 14th century.

  26. grumpy realist says:

    @JKB: The problem is the length of time between the research and when it finally produces something that can be applied to an actual product. Much of the research work on fuel cells was done back in the 1800s, but it was only the Apollo mission (note: funded by government) and the development of large-scale production of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that fuel cells for energy production became usable. (And it was the development of better catalysts that allowed CAFC fuel cells to become viable. Those are the ones that get used by hospitals and credit card companies to provide back-up power.)

    Given that U.S. companies have incredibly short-term time-spans (it’s always easier to cut the R&D division than the CEO’s bonus if you want to make the numbers look good for Wall Street), what we’re doing is not just eating our seed corn, but we’re merrily giving away our seed corn to our competitors. If scientists and engineers can’t find employment within the US, they’ll go where they CAN find employment. Which means if a country like China wants to totally do in the US, the only thing they’ll have to do is offer good salaries and research opportunities to the world. Within 30 years, they will have the lead in technology and the U.S. will be drifting into being a has-been.

    One of the reasons the US developed more and better technology than the rest of the world is because for years on end we offered such opportunities to everyone, world-wide. We got the pick of brains of Jewish refugees during WWII. Does anyone think that the US defense would be anything like it now is had it not been for people like Einstein, Bethe, Born, etc.?

  27. J-Dub says:

    Let me put this in terms that any right-winger can understand: The gov’t is funding research that will allow you to print a gun in your very own living room. You have to be able to get behind that.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-3d-printing-matters