Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Shortchanging science

LAMENTS in the scientific community about hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding cuts for research highlight yet another example of government saying one thing and doing another.

Last year, just months after President Bush signed into law the America Competes Act, which calls for doubling government science funding over the next decade, the fiscal 2008 federal budget sliced an estimated $500 million for research projects.

In December, the President implored the Democratic-led Congress to stick to his 2008 budget cap in its final catch-all spending bill. Science funding was caught in the battle between the White House and Congress and science lost.

Whether the 2009 budget now before Congress will eventually compensate for the 2008 shortfalls is anybody's guess.

But for now, scientists rightfully feel betrayed over the ditching of the government pledge to boost funding for research, and they worry what will befall their most talented colleagues as government investment in their projects wanes. In Congress, Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois predicts a sure brain drain among scientists if government continues to deliver only nominal support.

The House Republican, who played a key role in securing funds for Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, is troubled by the apparent willingness to leave planned science projects unfunded "because we have had such a focus on basic research and how important it is to American competitiveness and our long-term economic growth." Roughly 700 planned projects won't be funded in this fiscal year, affecting facilities across the nation.

For example, the discipline of high-energy physics, which dominates work at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, was hardest hit in the budget cuts. That development jeopardizes the jobs of staff and scientists there.

Federal funding problems have also reached into the field of medical research, forcing scientists to spend more time seeking grants than in the laboratory. "The National Institutes of Health has been essentially flat-funded for the past five years and we saw that trend continue in 2008," said Carrie Wolinetz of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Other budget casualties include scientists who work with peers around the world on international projects. They're concerned the U.S. will lose its credibility as a global partner in advancing science without a stronger commitment to help fund it.

Allowing funding to lapse for basic scientific research, the source of innovations ranging from the World Wide Web to high-tech cancer treatment, is incredibly shortsighted policy.

The long-term ramifications of undercutting studies that could bring progress to so many areas of life is obvious, but apparently not so in Washington.

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