Saturday, January 05, 2008

Further Decline in US Science Commitment

If there is one issue everyone tends to agree on, it is that in our global, competitive, technical world, the future of the US economy and position as a superpower is dependent on our science research and technology foundation, which has led the world since WWII. No other country in the world can come close to matching our science and R&D infrastructure, which consists of the merging of the entire university system, government funding and facilities, and private investment from business and industry. Scientists from around the world come here in droves to make use of American universities and national labs to do their cutting-edge research.

A looming problem, however, is we may lose this edge in science and technology because of a numbers game. When the baby-boom generation of scientists and engineers retires, there are small numbers of American students in the pipeline, meaning we anticipate severe problems replacing our current scientists. Well, the US government is on the verge of making this problem worse, further threatening our long-range world status and economic development. As reported in the Jan. 4, 2008, Chicago Tribune, there will be significant budget cuts for many of our national laboratories, including Fermilab and Argonne, both of which are outside Chicago.

This is ironic because my last post from just a couple days ago addresses major issues we face politically, environmentally, educationally, economically, and militarily. The issues are all connected intimately with science and technology. What political leaders, who control the budgets of national labs as they are run through the Department of Energy, continue to NOT understand, is that pure research is on an equal footing with applied research. What is more troubling is that the president, just last August, signed into law the America Competes Act, which was supposed to significantly increase our commitment to science and technology development. But the new budgetary priorities make no sense whatsoever.

I have argued many times the importance of pure research, which is what we typically do at national labs, certainly Fermilab and a good amount at Argonne. Pure and applied research go hand-in-hand, and just because one does not necessarily get a 'useful product' that can be sold from pure research does not make the knowledge attained meaningless or less valuable.

In addition to losing some amount of research in a variety of fields from the looming budget cuts, hundreds of high-tech jobs and positions will be cut. I fear another mini-exodus of American science talent, as happened when Congress, in its ultimate wisdom, pulled the funding entirely from the Superconducting Supercollider back in the early 1990s. Hundreds of American high-energy physics graduate students, technicians and professors have left research positions and collaborations here in the US and now do the bulk of their research in Europe, as the Large Hadron Collider is set to turn on later this spring, which will surpass Fermilab.

National labs help form the training grounds for future US scientists, engineers, computer experts and mathematicians. Why would we even consider making it more difficult to attract young students into any technical field? Rhetoric is one thing, but actions and budget priorities show one's true intensions. Students will see this lack of real commitment to jobs and training and research, and simply move into a different career path. Our future depends on our science and technology base, period. We are simply shooting ourselves in the foot long-term with decisions being made today.

If you are concerned about this lack of commitment to our future, please contact your congressional Representative and Senators and demand that we make real efforts to building and growing our science and technology base, not cutting it and discouraging young people from pursuing careers that are vital to keeping the US strong.

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