Scientific Research Vital to Economic Growth

Later this week, the U.S. Senate will consider H.R. 1, the federal budget bill approved by the House of Representatives earlier this month. The bill calls for $60 billion in budget cuts, including massive reductions within the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science.

Left intact, the cuts would effectively end America’s status as the leader in the worldwide scientific community and seriously threaten future U.S. economic growth.

The outcome of this debate is uncertain, and I won’t speculate on what the Senate will do. But I do know this: failure to restore cuts to scientific research will relegate the U.S. to second-class status, and put us at a significant disadvantage when competing with other countries.

As the Under Secretary for Science at the Department of Energy (DOE) in the Administration of George W. Bush, I can personally attest that funding for scientific research is not a partisan issue – at least it shouldn’t be. Cuts contained in H.R. 1 would reverse a bipartisan commitment to double the science research budgets of the National Science Foundation, the DOE Office of Science, and the National Institute for Science and Technology over 10 years – goals supported by both Presidents Bush and Obama and affirmed as recently as last December in the America COMPETES Act.

The cuts would have a devastating effect on a variety of critical scientific research programs. The bill removes $900 million in funds for the Office of Science, the basic research arm of the DOE – a reduction of some 20 percent. It specifically targets the Office of Biology and Environmental Research, slicing its budget by 50 percent – cuts that would all but eliminate funding for the Office’s three Biological Research Centers, the hope for developing transportation fuels derived from plant cellulose.

The hugely successful Energy Frontier Research Centers, which support research projects at 28 universities and 16 national laboratories, would be cut in midstream. These university centers support 1300 students working on a variety of projects, including the conversion of sunlight and heat into electricity; improved efficiency of photosynthesis in plants for the production of fuels; and enhanced combustion efficiency to increase mileage for automobiles.

The cuts also would put at risk work at our national laboratories, including projects to improve solid-state lighting and the conversion of coal into chemicals and fuels. This research is vitally important if the United States is to be a leader in transforming how humans obtain and use energy in ways that maintain economic viability.

To make matters worse, H.R. 1 would slice budgets for an array of programs at large-scale scientific facilities operated by the DOE’s Office of Science, including work with powerful light sources, vitally important to the U.S. biological, medical, and materials communities.

The budget deficit is serious, to be sure. But funding reductions alone are not the answer. Other countries struggling with deficits, including China and India, have increased funding of scientific research because they understand the critical role it plays in spurring technological advances and other innovations.

Over the past century, well over half of the economic growth in the U.S. can be traced to investments in science and technology. That’s a legacy we can, and must, preserve.

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