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

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/03/the-sequester-budget-policy-and-the-future-of-us-innovation/273978/