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Sequestration is imperiling scientific research — and economic growth

REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
The multi-touch interface familiar to smartphone and tablet users actually originated from University of Delaware scientists whose work was initially supported by the National Science Foundation.

Congress’ recent action to allow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 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.

kakalios photo
James Kakalios

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.

NSF founded in 1950

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.

Aids in training scientists

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 Barack 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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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Kline on 05/21/2013 - 10:03 am.

    This is a very socialist read.

    The fact is that this country boomed through private industry. During wartime, private industry contracted with government to provide the war efforts. This was not government. This was private capital.

    This bothers me: “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.”

    This tells me that you are very much FOR an all government research solution. It also scares the living daylights out of a lot of us. We remember that phrase; “Hi; I’m from the government and I’m here to help”… and we know what we really get for that.

    No, much of the strides are through private industry and innovation; not government. If you want government controlled research and design, move to Europe.

    • Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 05/21/2013 - 01:13 pm.

      the social contract?

      Mr. Kline’s ignorance about government is surprising. Who declared war? Who paid private industry for their war efforts? What private business does not take advantage of governments’ scientific research? Unless Mr. Kline went to private school who supported his elementary education. And I wonder if he was a victim of a tornado wouldn’t he be glad to see government emergency vehicles, police help after the devastation. And from what business does he think warnings about weather come from? We need both private enterprise and government. The implied social contract is that we are all in this together and need government.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/21/2013 - 12:19 pm.

    China is not squabbling with itself over trifling matters.

    Rather, seeing a matter of fundamental importance to their society, China is moving forward and accelerating its funding of basic research.

    The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST)…

    “…has pledged to increase spending on scientific research to 2.2 percent of GDP by 2015.”

    “Meanwhile, a study has found that the volume of research papers published in the field of materials science is being driven by Asia and, in particular, China, which has overtaken the United States and Japan to become the largest single-country producer in the world.” (from

    The other major funding channels besides MOST are…“National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and the China Scholarship Council (CSC) affiliated to the Ministry of Education (MoE)” (from

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/21/2013 - 01:28 pm.

    Folklore of capitalism

    It’s true that the economy has “boomed” during wartime and that such “boom” was due to government contracts with “private industry”. But until WWII came along, this country was still recovering from the Great Depression. Since WWII, the country has boomed because of the continued government intervention in the economy, an intervention highly invisible to the man on the street because of the high level and indirect nature of the contracting.

    I agree with the author that sequestration is damaging the long term growth prospects for this country. Maybe Al Gore did not “invent” the Internet but he did champion important legislation that brought the ARPANET to fruition in an “information superhighway”.

    “Senator Albert Gore, Jr. began to craft the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 (commonly referred to as “The Gore Bill”) after hearing the 1988 report toward a National Research Network submitted to Congress by a group chaired by Leonard Kleinrock, professor of computer science at UCLA. The bill was passed on 9 December 1991 and led to the National Information Infrastructure (NII) which Al Gore called the “information superhighway”. ”

    The sequestration and the idiotic obsession with the “deficit” is hurting everyone but this article points to self-inflicted damage to the economic engine itself. “Sequestration” is the result of irresponsible political posturing by the right against any new taxes, which is supposed to provide the stimulus to the economy. It should be highly obvious to all but the most willfully blind fanatics that the Reaganesque supply side anti-tax economics of the right have been a huge failure. The “deficit” is a direct manifestation of that failure. The sooner this country comes to its senses and jettisons the bankrupt policies of the right, the sooner we’ll put this country’s economy to the right path. The “deficit” will then take care of itself.

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