Cutting Science Funding Starves Future Generations | Commentary

Posted September 11, 2013 at 12:25pm

Almost 30 years ago, Paul Blustein introduced the slogan “starving the beast.” It has since become the mantra of conservative policymakers who want to shrink the federal government by cutting taxes and curbing revenues. Blustein was quoting a Reagan White House official in his Wall Street Journal column when he wrote, “We didn’t starve the beast. It’s still eating quite well — by feeding off future generations.”

Thirty years later, as federal debt has continued to swell — even when Republicans controlled the coffers — the beast is still feeding off future generations. But now the beast is well on its way to starving those future generations, to boot. It is in the process of undermining the foundation of future economic growth, which in no small measure depends on science, education and infrastructure.

Borrowing from our children can be beneficial, provided we use their money productively to make their lives better than ours. The trouble is that our policies today will likely make their lives worse.

In the name of fiscal responsibility and national security needs, the House spending plan, which carries the imprimatur of Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has provided appropriators with little wiggle room for nondefense funding. As a result, on a raft of research accounts they have been forced to hold expenditures at current sequester levels or, in the case of applied research, significantly lower.

About the only people who are cheering are our competitors in Europe and Asia, where regional public spending on research and development is growing. That China has been pumping vast sums of money into science and technology for almost a decade should come as no surprise. It’s been more than a blip on the wonk radar screen for some time.

European R&D investments, on the other hand, largely have flown below the reportorial radar. And before it’s too late, we need to pay attention to what our neighbors across the pond have been doing.

Throughout most of Europe, austerity has been the fiscal medicine du jour ever since the financial collapse more than four years ago. I leave to economists to debate whether the cure does more harm than good. But I give European policymakers credit for generally keeping R&D spending a priority even in a climate of austerity.

For example, the European Union remained steadfast in its commitment to the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which boosted European Research Council funding by an average annual rate of 11 percent during the past seven years. The next framework, known as Horizon 2020, may not exhibit such dramatic growth, but odds are it will still be very robust. Although the United States remains a leader in many areas of science, the EU thrust poses a distinct threat to American primacy.

The warning flags are already up. As last year’s discovery of the Higgs particle at CERN in Geneva demonstrates, Europe can justifiably claim to be the center for high-energy physics — even though the United States had the largest contingent of physicists working there. For fusion energy research, the story is much the same: Cadarache in southern France will be the home of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a fusion megaproject.

Europe is also aggressively vying for bragging rights as numero uno in neutron physics, synchrotron light research and X-ray free-electron laser capabilities. These phrases may sound arcane to the lay reader, but they have profound meaning for scientists intent on producing new materials and pharmaceuticals, improving energy efficiency, pinning down the structure of biological macromolecules, diagnosing diseases — the list is far too long to enumerate completely. And if Europe becomes the go-to place for such research, the innovation, jobs and economic benefit that it accrues will not be America’s to harvest.

In the case of physics, Europe’s claim to top billing is reflected in scientific publication data. The American Physical Society is one of the leading publishers of physics research, and its set of Physical Review journals attracts contributors worldwide. Today, according to the latest APS data, for every two published articles from North America, there are about three from Europe.

So while Congress marches toward yet another continuing resolution that will bake last year’s sequester cuts into next year’s budget pie, our international scientific competitors can only applaud our political ineptitude.

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. He writes and speaks widely about scientific research and science policy.