Government R&D budget cuts, a jobs killer?

Proponents of government-funded scientific research in the U.S. are alarmed that existing budget limits impinge on U.S. scientific process, and worried about the possibility of harsher reductions after the election.
Written by David Worthington, Contributor
Internet co-creator Vint Cerf is deeply concerned about the impact of U.S. government budget cuts to science R&D.

Proponents of government-funded scientific research in the United States are alarmed that existing budget limits impinge on U.S. scientific process and economic gain. However, much harsher reductions could be on the horizon depending on the outcome of next month's Presidential election.

Internet co-creator Vint Cerf and a coalition of science and technology societies are opposing restrictions on what federal agencies can spend on conferences on the grounds that they harm scientific collaboration, the New York Times reports. Travel budgets were cut by 30% this year after it was revealed that government employees splurged in 2010.

The directive to slash spending has saved $600 million during the first two quarters of this year alone compared to 2010, according to Office of Management and Budget estimates that were cited by the Times. The Obama administration promotes the cuts as "efficient spending" and lifts spending caps after review.

Opponents including the Association for Computing Machinery, Computer Research Organization, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics are sounding warning bells. One of their more high profile advocates includes  "father of the Internet" Vint Cerf. The cuts are more profound than budgetary belt tightening and will cost us in the long run, they say.

The group sent letters to Congress last month explaining that scientific conferences are "critical opportunities" for scientists and engineers to stay current on new developments in their respective disciplines. It argued: "these conferences facilitate communication among scientists, engineers, practitioners and students. They provide an important venue for presenting cutting-edge research."

Cerf told the Times "the inability of the government researchers and program managers to participate in these conferences is actually very damaging" to anyone who's involved in scientific work. He added that the cuts "can't be good for the United States" amid its economic downturn and unusually high unemployment.

If President Obama's guidelines have upset the scientific community, one could imagine the reaction if his opponent Governor Mitt Romney were to implement his budget priorities. Romney's budget proposal would cut government discretionary spending by US$133 billion in 2016 and $1.3 trillion by 2022, the liberal leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says. This would have a considerable impact on scientific research (Romney does, however, allocate substantial more monies toward military R&D) and reduce it to historical lows.

(My colleague Janet fang went into even greater detail.)

Proponents of government research have long argued that it has a profound impact on the economy. While some of the evidence is patchy (there have been few comprehensive studies on the topic since the 1970's), it's difficult to disagree with that. Government investments financed breakthroughs in semiconductors and computer languages, as well as the creation of the Internet, and even the technologies behind hydraulic fracturing that has dramatically increased domestic supplies of natural gas. Advances in biotechnology have likewise greatly increased productivity and improved public health. Government research helped to create the conditions necessary for entrepreneurs to exploit emerging technologies and start new businesses.

A 2010 study by the Science Coalition, a non-profit group that represents 50 research universities, argues that over 100 U.S. companies - with annual revenues approaching $100 billion that collectively employee over 100,000 people - were made possible through government research. Some of those are Arbor Networks, Genentech, and Google. The private sector doesn't always fund long-term unprofitable basic research.

As a society, it's worth exploring whether cuts in R&D investments will make the United States less competitive and dampen future economic growth. Some say that China is already approaching science supremacy. Will the U.S. so willingly cede the throne? Will the next big company be founded here? It all comes down to priorities.

Scientific innovation was once seen as the future - the gateway to greater prosperity and a better way of life. Now, Scientific American had to run an article asking whether anti-science beliefs are threatening U.S. democracy. If the U.S. doesn't value science anymore, where will all the future jobs come from?

(Image credit: Wikipedia Commons)

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