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Obama, McCain Can Help Advance Energy, Competitiveness Now

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) unveiled impressive plans this week on energy and competitiveness policy, but they need to act now to save federal energy research from collapsing.

[IMGCAP(1)]Specifically, McCain should call the White House and Obama should call Democratic Congressional leaders to make sure that federal scientific research budgets aren’t flat-lined for another year.

Funding cuts are especially dire for science programs at the Department of Energy, resulting in layoffs at national laboratories and cuts in university research in the physical sciences.

There’s widespread bipartisan agreement — in principle — that the United States needs to increase funding for basic research, science education and energy innovation.

But, somehow, what everybody agrees to in principle doesn’t get done in practice — either because of partisan rancor or competing priorities.

In 2006, for instance, President Bush called for an American Competitiveness Initiative, including a doubling of basic science research over a 10-year period. And Congress, by wide margins in both the House and Senate, passed the America Competes Act last year, authorizing the doubling in seven years and calling for increases in science teaching.

The impetus, of course, was a rising concern that the United States is in danger of falling behind its foreign competitors in research and the training of scientists, threatening the nation’s standard of living.

As Obama put it in his speech Monday in Flint, Mich., “at a time when technology is shaping our future, we devote a smaller and smaller share of our national resources to research and development. It’s time for America to lead.”

He promised to double federal funding for basic research and said, “we can ensure that the discoveries of the 21st century happen in America — in our labs and universities.”

And McCain, in his energy speech Tuesday in Houston, declared that he would lead “a great national campaign to achieve energy security for America” involving an eventual “great turn” from carbon to alternative fuels — for which, he said “we will need all the inventive genius of which America is capable.”

And yet, right now, the United States is being forced by Department of Energy budget cuts to withdraw from ITER, the international project — based in France — to investigate whether nuclear fusion is a potential source of energy.

More than 2,700 workers at the DOE’s national laboratories already have been laid off and 200 planned university research programs have been canceled, according to City College of New York professor Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society.

Also in danger is U.S. participation in an international high-energy physics project based in Geneva, Switzerland, and development of work in U.S. labs on high-intensity X-rays useful for biomedical research, nanotechnology and computer-chip design — all keys to competitiveness.

The goals authorized in 2007 were never funded. Both the House and Senate actually agreed to a 17 percent increase in funding for DOE science projects — to make up for money diverted the previous year for Hurricane Katrina cleanup — as well as 12 percent for the National Science Foundation and 32 percent for the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

But after Democrats and the White House reached a funding impasse in December, Congress passed an omnibus fiscal 2008 appropriation that contained barely any increases for science.

Lubell says some Democrats told him at the time that they were unwilling to let Bush claim credit for passing competitiveness initiatives. Also, Democrats were furious with Bush for suddenly becoming a budget hawk after years of failing to veto GOP spending bills.

This year, Bush called for an 18 percent increase in the DOE science budget and 14 percent for NSF, but Democrats have signaled that no domestic appropriations bills are likely to pass while Bush is in office.

The Senate has included science funding in its version of the Iraq War supplemental bill. The House has not, but may yet, along with increased unemployment insurance.

However, Bush is threatening to veto anything but a “clean” war supplemental. In the meantime, the Senate has allocated $200 million increases for NSF, $400 million for the National Institutes of Health, but only $100 million for DOE science, while allocating $300 million to nuclear site environmental cleanup.

Earlier this month, 74 CEOs of technology companies and university presidents signed a letter to Congressional leaders appealing for increases in the NSF and DOE levels in the supplemental and declaring that past underfunding means that “cutting edge research has been halted or not launched; scientists by the hundreds have lost their jobs; fewer teachers are being trained; bright students are choosing alternative paths, and international partnerships have been severed.”

To advance the causes of competitiveness and energy research, Obama and McCain should take a few minutes out from campaigning and make some phone calls. If they succeed, they can claim credit for leadership.

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