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Lubell: Lessons From the Cliffhanger

The dream of a grand bargain now appears to be little more than a fantasy

The debris the 112th Congress left behind when it finally closed its doors on Jan. 3 poses immense risks for the future American economy and the science on which it relies. The narrative is far from Byzantine, but, remarkably, it has received far too little attention.

First, a few background bullets: Science and technology today account for as much as 70 percent of our nation’s economic growth; lack of patient private capital has forced the federal government to assume the role of prime investor in long-term scientific research; global competition and scientists are extraordinarily mobile; and reconstructing a fractured scientific enterprise is both difficult and immensely costly in human and financial capital.

Together, these essentials should serve as a stern warning to members of Congress contemplating major reductions in federal research support. But I am profoundly concerned that in the coming months, politics will trump policy, and the nation will suffer. Here’s why.

The last-minute deal the 112th Congress struck to avoid the fiscal cliff, or at least provide a temporary reprieve from a disastrous economic plunge, may seem small. But in many ways it was a big deal, not because it was the first time in 20 years a GOP-led House approved a tax increase or because it revealed the depth of the fractures among Speaker John A. Boehner’s minions, but because it demonstrated just how narrow the path to fiscal solvency has become.

It put to bed, for now, any hope of accommodation on deeply held positions of both parties. Democrats remain opposed to wholesale entitlement reform, and Republicans, especially with the tax rates now enshrined in legislative permanency, are opposed to ceding further ground on revenue increases. The dream of a grand bargain on debt stabilization, which once had the aura of aspirational authenticity, now appears to have been little more than a fleeting fantasy.

The cliffhanger deal also made the across-the-board sequester mandated by the Budget Control Act far more politically palatable. It lowered defense reductions from 9.4 percent to 7.3 percent and nondefense cuts from 8.2 percent to 5.9 percent.

For many members of Congress, letting the revised sequester kick in may now be easier than negotiating a thoughtful new deal on reduced discretionary spending. Using a meat cleaver rather than a scalpel to trim the federal budget may be poor policy, but it could be good politics.

The trouble is that while it will rid the budget of fat, it will also cut muscle and sinew, where science programs reside. Reducing federal support for research at a time when the rest of the world is nipping at our technological heels is dreadful policy that will have economic ramifications far into the future.

To put the issue in context, consider that federal support for atomic, molecular and optical physics more than 50 years ago helped propel the development of lasers to the point that today they are crucial cogs in one-third of the American economy. Or that a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship gave Google co-founder Sergey Brin a start that eventually blossomed into a company with more than 50,000 employees. Or that sustained support of high-energy physics provided the foundation that years later led to the development of Hypertext Transfer Protocol, more familiarly known as http, the foundation of the Web.

Near-term comprehensive agreements on revenue and spending might be beyond reach. But as Congress grapples with a March trifecta — the expiring fiscal 2013 continuing resolution, the debt ceiling and the delayed budget sequester — all members, irrespective of party, must understand that absent sustained economic growth, tax and spending reform will simply be footnotes in future histories documenting the decline of a great nation. And they must further understand that the path to future American prosperity lies in science and technology, as it has for more than 65 years.

Slashing federal support of scientific research will surely endanger the engine of American economic growth. But the politically contrived Dionysian uncertainty that hangs over the scientific enterprise, like the sword of Damocles, is damaging as well.

Business leaders warn that continued uncertainty in fiscal matters is bad for business. And Wall Street warns that fiscal uncertainties are bad for Wall Street. The same is true for science. It’s just that scientists are more prone to focus on making discoveries and creating innovations than to venture out of their laboratories and engage the political system. It’s too bad, because most of them have a compelling story to tell.

Of course even if they gave voice to their narratives, it’s not clear how many members of Congress would take the time to listen.

Michael S. Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.

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