Budget Deal Could Put Science Back on World Stage

First published in The Hill on November 18, 2015

November 24, 2015  |  Michael S. Lubell

The budget agreement Congress and the White House struck last month averted a fiscal cliff, but there’s ample cause for concern that American science might still be hanging over the precipice.

With only 87 Republican House members voting in favor of a deal that GOP leaders had secretly negotiated with the president, it’s pretty clear the far right thought former Speaker John Boehner had signed a pact with the devil as he exited stage left. But the numbers prove them wrong.

Yes, it’s true the agreement will boost both non-defense and defense spending by a total of $80 billion over the next two fiscal years. But, by providing $31 billion more for the Defense and State Departments through the Overseas Contingency Operations account, the accord will likely favor military over domestic civilian increases by a healthy margin. And it will reduce Medicare spending, albeit by a modest 2 percent.

Such a deal with the White House should partially mollify the conservative posse that wants to corral a run-away federal bureaucracy. But it’s likely it won’t. And that means, to avoid denunciations by the far right, a federal program will almost certainly have to demonstrate that it is indispensable and delivers public benefits effectively, efficiently and, most importantly, rapidly.

That’s a tall order for agencies that support scientific research, despite their remarkable record of past accomplishments. I’ll explain the difficulty shortly, but first a few historical plaudits.

The Department of Energy (DOE), NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have all underwritten scientific advances that keep the American economy humming, secure our nation’s safety and provide the best diagnostic and treatment tools in medicine.

For example, the laser, which is rooted in fundamental quantum mechanics research long supported by NSF and DOE, enables almost one third of today’s U.S. economy. The GPS, which relies on high-precision atomic clocks developed at NIST and applications of general relativity, is an essential component of an array of weapons systems and every smart phone. And in medicine, without DOE and NIH sponsored research the MRI, CT scanners and genomic-based pharmaceuticals would be little more than science fiction.  

Kudos, certainly, but that’s all in the past, a critic of government programs might say. What are you doing for me now? With a mounting federal debt, I need to know today that you can deliver tomorrow’s benefits tomorrow.

And there’s the rub. It is in the very nature of research that outcomes are unpredictable and come without guarantees. Furthermore, small incremental advances and outright failures vastly outnumber blockbuster discoveries. And finally, scientific progress demands patience: benefits accrue but often only after years or decades of painstaking research. That’s a tough sell for elected officials whose electoral clock sounds its alarm far more frequently.

Still, as House and Senate appropriators struggle to support non-defense needs within the agreed upon budget caps, they should heed this warning: the U.S. is on the brink of losing its status as the world’s scientific leader. Just how precarious the American position has become struck me while I was attending an international workshop on large research facilities this past summer. The meeting, hosted by the Italian Physical Society, took place at the Villa Monastero on Lake Como. It was a spectacularly beautiful setting, but the takeaway message for me as an American was stunningly depressing.  

While U.S. support of research has been stuck in idle for most of the last decade, Europe and Asia have been moving ahead at warp speed. By 2020, unless our nation’s commitment to research takes a rapid and dramatic swing upward, we will have few if any major laboratory facilities that will qualify as world-class. For scientists, who are used to traveling to laboratories with the most advanced capabilities, the shift away from America will be little more than a geographic inconvenience. But for our nation, the shift is fraught with danger.

For more than half a century, scientists from around the globe have flocked to our shores, drawn by the opportunity to carry out their research at the best-equipped facilities in the world. Many of them have remained here and helped fuel the extraordinary American innovation engine. 

But as American research support wanes and U.S. laboratories wither, the danger for our nation is that in the very near future the best scientists from every place in the world – including the United States – will flock to other nations that offer better facilities and better opportunities. And many of them will remain there, fueling the innovation engines of their adopted lands.

The October budget deal provides an opportunity for members of Congress to reverse the decline in federal research funding. They should seize that opportunity before it is too late. American science is on a precipice, and so is American exceptionalism.

Lubell is the Mark W. Zemansky Professor of Physics at the City College of the City University of New York and Director of Public Affairs of the American Physical Society. He writes and speaks widely about scientific research and science policy.

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.