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Tea Party Excess Threatens High-Tech Success | Commentary

The government shutdown and threatened financial default may seem so yesterday, given the Obamacare rollout mess. But the tea party’s October call to conservative arms is having a persisting, pernicious effect, even though the media and Wall Street seem to have moved on.

What I have in mind, particularly, is the sequester’s impact on science, the generator of America’s future economic growth.

In the Senate, where a modicum of bipartisanship and sanity still remain, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has assumed the mantle of GOP leadership on innovation. His recent gutsy call for increased federal investments in research comes as his former South Carolina colleague, Jim DeMint, has been pressuring Republicans from his perch atop The Heritage Foundation to focus on taming the federal deficit to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The Heritage drumbeat has considerable traction in the House, where DeMint’s acolytes are inhibiting even the smallest attempts by Republican authorizers on the Science, Space and Technology Committee to address America’s flagging research enterprise.

Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, should take a cue from the other Lamar and challenge the tea party to do battle over federal science spending. He might lose the initial skirmish, but he will come out the ultimate victor because the past is on his side.

Democrats believe they won a political victory by hanging tough and refusing to allow Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his minions to gut the Affordable Care Act. And snapshots of public sentiment at the time put most of the blame for the government shutdown and the near-death experience of financial default squarely on Republicans.

But in the end, what Democrats really got was a three-month ceasefire in the battle between believers in government and scoffers who, apart from defending defense programs, see shrinking the federal enterprise as their principal Washington assignment. The deal leaves in place all the uncertainties that harm enterprises requiring certainty — innovation is one of them.

Apple’s outlook provides a good illustration of the looming danger. Ever since the death of Steve Jobs, the visionary founder of the Cupertino, Calif.-based company, Apple stock has been on a roller-coaster ride. From the day Tim Cook donned the mantle of CEO, analysts have been wondering if Apple’s gift of gold would soon follow Jobs into the grave. But in the long term, Washington, not just California, will hold the keys to Apple’s success.

The public may not know it, and Wall Street may not fully grasp it, but Jobs did not invent the technologies Apple uses today. Jobs’ genius was his uncanny ability to sense what devices the public would snap up and identify the existing technologies that would make the devices possible.

Even if Cook has the mustard to keep Apple’s innovation dynamo humming at the warp-speed standard Jobs set, he won’t be able to keep Apple dollars rolling in five or more years from now if the well of scientific discovery dries up. And that brings me back to the tea party fanatics and the damage their misguided cause is causing.

Applying a meat ax to the federal budget may be satisfying if your mission is to downsize and dismantle the federal government as quickly as possible. But the only cognoscenti who are applauding are our European and Asian competitors. They recognize the importance of scientific discovery. So do American economists, who estimate that fully 50 percent to 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product growth ultimately stems from innovation, much of it federally inspired.

Government support of science, for example, delivered the integrated circuit, the atomic clock, the global positioning system, the Internet and the touch screen, the innovations Jobs seized on to create the iPhone and iPad. And the Apple saga is only one of many high-tech success stories hidden in plain sight.

As World War II drew to a close, the federal government began pouring money into an arcane field known as quantum mechanics. One of the outcomes was the laser, which now enables technologies accounting for more than a third of our economy.

Until recently, federal support of research knew no partisan boundaries. But today, tea party firebrands, who have been using the House of Representatives for their personal target practice, have broken that bipartisan bond and are threatening to undermine America’s science-driven economic engine. If they get their way, morning in America may soon become mourning in America.

Michael S. 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.

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