The Sequester, Budget Policy, and the Future of U.S. Innovation

If you haven't come across it yet, please do see the open letter published yesterday on our Politics Channel from the directors of three of the U.S. National Labs. These places are famous around the world, and are rightly seen as symbols of American scientific excellence and bulwarks of long-term American strength. The three authors are Paul Alivisatos, Eric Isaacs, and Thom Mason, from, respectively, the Lawrence Berkeley, Argonne, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.

The title of their essay gets the point across: "The Sequester Is Going to Devastate U.S. Science Research for Decades." That may sound extreme, but here is the heart of their case:

It's not yet clear how much funding the National Labs will lose, but it will total tens of millions of dollars. Interrupting -- or worse, halting -- basic research in the physical, biological, and computational sciences would be devastating, both for science and for the many U.S. industries that rely on our national laboratory system to power their research and development efforts.

Instead, this drop in funding will force us to cancel all new programs and research initiatives, probably for at least two years. This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the word races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities.

My sense from afar is that an "oh, it's not really that bad" attitude is setting in about America's permanent-emergency approach to public funding. This is a reminder that it really could be that bad. And on that point, a scientist I know in California has written:

When I was a kid, in the 1970s, there were about 2000 'operational' weather balloon sites that released balloons synchronized to be in the middle of the troposphere at 00 and 12 UTZ daily.

When I did a survey of how many there were in 2000, there were about 800. There are myriad reasons, the relative poverty of many countries that can't afford to pay for the programs and geopolitics among them.

The number is about to drop precipitously due to a contrived crisis by a rich nation.

I am deeply ashamed for my country.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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