Trump budget throws monkey wrench at engine of innovation
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The new budget proposed by the Trump administration would undermine the National Laboratories of the Department of Energy, which, for over 60 years, have been a major source of U.S. innovation, economic growth and national security.

These are the laboratories that started the human genome program, spurred the development of the world’s fastest and most powerful computers, participated in the discovery of at least 16 new elements on the periodic table and have played a role in winning 115 Nobel prizes. 

There has been a lot of focus lately on how to stimulate further innovation and economic growth in the U.S. economy. In an article last month, Eric Lander and Eric Schmidt described the “Miracle Machine” of U.S. technology innovation as “…the reason the United States is the global hub for the technologies of the future.” The National Laboratories are a critical part of that innovation infrastructure for the country.

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Our university community, which is the envy of the world, would be seriously impacted by the proposed budget cuts to the National Labs. They rely on the National Labs to build and operate the large-scale science facilities, such as particle accelerators and supercomputer centers, tasks that go beyond the capacity of a single university. Over 33,000 researchers from universities and corporations use these facilities every year.

Researchers from the business community collaborate with the National Labs on over 3,000 research and development (R&D) projects per year, such as the development of cleaner power plants and vehicles, new cutting-edge materials, applications of nano-particles, sophisticated computer controls, even new pharmaceuticals — every new drug in the past 25 years has been tested in large-scale particle accelerators at the National Labs.

Major industrial research organizations, such as Bell Labs, have reduced their spending over the past decades and now rely more than ever on the capabilities of the National Labs to help drive our innovation and competitiveness. 

Yet, the new Trump budget would cut the funding for the nation’s 14 basic science and energy National Laboratories by 25 percent. Even at the other three nuclear weapons laboratories, the budget would cut out most R&D that is not directly related to the nuclear stockpile or other national security programs.

Currently, those three labs serve as key collaborators with the others in R&D that requires the National Labs to work as a system of interconnected, often interdisciplinary, laboratories to deal with really big R&D challenges.

As Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderCollins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' Senate chairman says bipartisan health care package coming Thursday It's time for Republicans to lead (again) on climate MORE (R-Tenn.) and 5 other senators said in a letter last month to the president: “Government-sponsored research is one of the most important investments our country can make to encourage innovation, unleash our free enterprise system to create good-paying jobs and ensure American competitiveness in a global economy.” 

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has also learned very early in his tenure just how important the National Laboratories are, and praised “the scientific ‘jewels’ of America’s system of 17 National Laboratories.” 

We recently served as co-chairs of the congressionally-mandated Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories.

We reviewed all 17 of the National Laboratories of the Department of Energy, which span the country and include weapons labs and applied labs. These labs employ almost 60,000 people and are often the mainstays of their communities. One of the things we learned was how little people know about them, including many members of Congress.  This lack of understanding makes the National Labs especially vulnerable to budget cuts. 

Our report pointed out that the constant dollar level of R&D funding for DOE and the National Labs has been essentially flat for the past 40 years, across Republican and Democratic presidents and Congresses. Furthermore, during this period some other nations have increased the share of their GDPs going into R&D, while the U.S. percentage has actually declined.

While our commission focused primarily on opportunities to make the National Lab system more effective and efficient, we also emphasized that sustained funding support is essential. 

Over the past four decades, there have been over 50 commissions and independent reviews of the National Labs. Virtually all of them have concluded that the National Labs are “a national treasure” and that they serve a vital role in our country’s R&D, national security and competitiveness.

The March for Science in April was a dramatic display of the strong public support for federal government funding for science. We urge the administration and the Congress to continue to provide strong funding support to the DOE National Laboratories.

Jared Cohon is president emeritus and former director of the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University. He's also a university professor of civil and environmental engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon. TJ Glauthier was the deputy secretary of the Department of Energy from 1999-2001. He is an independent advisor and board member for energy companies, management consulting and universities. He co-chaired, with Jared Cohon, the congressionally-mandated Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories.


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