Scientific research? We built that!

Congress’s recent action to allow the Federal Aviation Administration to avoid furloughs of air traffic controllers is an indication that the fiscal sequester is starting to bite. Less visible, but no less real, is the harm to our economic growth that will result from drastic across-the-board sequestration cuts to agencies that support scientific research.

A recent open letter to Congress signed by more than 50 Nobel Laureates warned that these cuts would severely damage the work being done at scientific agencies including the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology — all of which fund cutting-edge research that have led to discoveries that improved our quality of life, strengthened national security and enhanced economic growth. The Internet, laser technologies and GPS are but a few of the myriad discoveries that trace their roots to early scientific research.

One means of increasing public awareness has been a recent spate of television commercials that acknowledge the connection between basic research of scientists and engineers in the lab, and the resulting cutting-edge technology that profoundly improves people’s lives. A Verizon commercial pointed out that science and technology can provide “powerful answers” to our problems.

Polls conducted by the American Physical Society have found that many folks do not recognize the role that basic research plays in their daily lives. Even more under-appreciated is that most of the research that impacts us is federally funded, carried out at universities and national laboratories with no immediate expectation of profit.

The U.S. government began supporting scientific research in earnest in 1950, with the establishment of the National Science Foundation. From elucidating the basic properties of novel semiconductors and metals to studying the magnetic structure of atomic nuclei that led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging, our tax dollars have supported advanced, exploratory research that has laid the groundwork for new industries and technologies.

For example, many of us own tablet computers or smartphones that allows us to alter the display using one or two fingers. This multi-touch interface actually originated from University of Delaware scientists whose work was initially supported by the National Science Foundation.

Obviously, not all research leads to new devices and products, but nearly all research does yield an important result vital for our economic and national security — a new generation of highly trained scientists and engineers who will staff defense and industrial labs.

Just as no amount of time in a driver education class can substitute for instruction behind the wheel, the best way to train a research scientist is to have him or her do scientific research. Over the years, federally funded research through the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and other agencies has been a tremendously successful jobs program, enabling the training of legions of scientists and engineers who have gone on to staff high-technology industries, from Apple to Verizon.

An often proposed solution to our current budget difficulties is to “grow our way” out of our deficit. But new growth always requires proper seeding and cultivation. I urge President Obama and Congress to undo the sequestration and find a responsible way to address deficit reduction.  Scientific research, supported by all of us, is one of the best ways to ensure that our nation hosts the next transformative high-tech industry. That would indeed be a powerful answer to our problems.

James Kakalios is the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, and the author of The Physics of Superheroes – Second Spectacular Edition (Gotham, 2009).

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