21 December 2012

Vertigo: on the edge of the fiscal cliff

Vertigo -- a dizzy, confused, disoriented state of mind -- is a nearly universal response when looking out over the edge of a cliff.

But the managers and researchers at labs and universities across the United States don’t have time for vertigo as they contemplate the brink of the impending “fiscal cliff.” With 10 days (and a major holiday week) before a deadline that would among other things substantially reduce federal funding for scientific research, the House of Representatives has adjourned until after the first of the year, delaying or eliminating the opportunity for a different resolution.

After the first of the year, more than $500 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts will begin to take effect, threatening to undermine the sluggish recovery and prompt a new recession, a Washington Post article noted yesterday. (The New York Times provides detailed analysis as well.)

So, labs and universities are reviewing contingency plans for worst-case scenarios while hoping for better news.

For example, Oak Ridge Today reported earlier this week that the Oak Ridge National Lab “says it’s as well-prepared as it can be.” Based on an Office of Management and Budget report, the automatic spending cuts, which are also known as sequestration, would result in 8-9% in funding of National Nuclear Security Administration facilities such as ORNL.

Beyond defense-related research cuts, the article said, spending for the U.S. Department of Energy’s science activities could be cut by $400 million, and energy efficiency and renewable energy programs could be reduced by $148 million. Funding for DOE’s nuclear energy activities could drop $63 million.

Slowing science, slowing growth
The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that “the stakes could hardly be higher for research universities, which are the engines that power much of the country's scientific, technological, and economic growth” -- but also that the real impact is much larger:

“Universities account for more than half of the basic research conducted in the United States, work that often serves as the backbone of commercial research-and-development efforts by private-sector companies. Those companies, which already collectively invest $250-billion a year in such efforts -- much of it focused on the development side -- simply don't have the resources to devote to pure research on a scale needed to keep the United States at the forefront of scientific and technological innovation.

“That funding void has been filled to a large extent by the U.S. government, which pays for about 60 percent of the basic research conducted by American universities. The historical return for that federal investment has been spectacular by any measure—jobs created, economic output, contributions to the well-being of people around the world.

“University faculty and students are every day engaged in work that has the potential to save lives and improve the standard of living of Americans today and well into the future.

“This significant economic force for societal good is being jeopardized by sequestration, which would require across-the-board spending cuts of as much as 9 percent from 2011 levels for most federal agencies. The result in 2013: A $12.5-billion reduction in federally financed research, which could cost the U.S. economy an estimated 200,000 jobs, according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation."

A letter to Congress and President Obama from some 120 science, engineering, and STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) organizations including SPIE earlier this month detailed some of the fruits of that research: the Global Positioning System, the laser, and the Internet, diagnostics and treatments for heart disease, cancer, epilepsy and diabetes, among others. Almost every national priority -- from health and defense, to agriculture and conservation -- relies on science and engineering, the letter notes.

In a word, The Atlantic called the potential of the fiscal cliff “crippling”:

“If the U.S. Congress fails to act, the now clichéd across-the-board tax cuts on discretionary spending -- the so called "sequestration" clause of the Budget Control Act of 2011 -- will kick in. One might argue that this could trigger a recession; but there is almost no denial that it will cripple U.S. scientific enterprise."

Just now, science in the U.S. is on the verge of what the Fiscal Times called “America’s Wile E. Coyote moment." Like the indomitable Mr. Coyote, the economy may have a chance to recover when Congress is back in session on 3 January.

14 December 2012

A Congressional pledge for science? Respect could only help

In the face of recent comments by lawmakers and others in the public eye suggesting that accepting scientific evidence is akin to the decision to believe in a particular religion or political dogma, NPR commentator Adam Frank has suggested a clarifying solution.

Congress, he said in a Cosmos & Culture post on 11 December, should consider making a pledge to science -- not to wholesale acceptance of all published research, but simply to “uphold the integrity of basic scientific research and take no actions to undermine the broadest public education in empirically verifiable scientific truths."

Volunteers from SPIE are among hundreds
of scientists and engineers who visit
Congressional offices every year to stress
the contributions of STEM research to
society and the economy.

His underlying point that science and technology are “the engines of our economic competitiveness” echoes the words of leaders of 120 science, engineering, and STEM education organizations in a letter last week to Congress and President Obama urging them to avoid the “fiscal cliff” deadline. If policymakers are unable to work out a solution by the end of the year, blunt budget cuts will accelerate a trend toward decline in U.S. research and R&D funding.

The problem with that is that technology R&D is a major force in building the economy and creating new, highly skilled jobs. And besides spawning the Global Positioning System, the laser, and the Internet, technology has enabled countless medical advances that have helped save the lives of millions of heart disease, cancer and diabetes patients, among others. Almost every national priority -- from health and defense, to agriculture and conservation -- relies on science and engineering.

In short, cutting the funding cuts the flow of progress.

As SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs noted, while financial problems are in a dire state, “It would be utterly foolish to damage the best hope for economic health: our science and technology capability."

Solar panels provide clean energy in
remote places. United Nations
Development Programme. UN photo.

Adam Frank puts it this way: “Standing up for science should be a no-brainer for us. We are a nation that has shown, many times, how much we value the endless possibilities flowing from the pursuit of knowledge, not the least of which include a lasting peace and a generous prosperity for everyone.”

“Standing up for science” doesn’t require a formal pledge on the part of policymakers, although it is an intriguing idea. But basic respect for responsible science and technology is crucial. With that respect comes support for many vital needs. For example:
  • Improving healthcare capabilities, such as detecting cancer earlier and increasing the odds of patient survival
  • Retaining the most highly skilled workforce rather than sending graduates out of the country as soon as they complete their degrees
  • Creating new highly skilled jobs in manufacturing and engineering
  • Developing energy production that will meet the needs of the future without creating new damage to the environment, or exacerbating existing pollution and global warming
  • Ensuring safe communities
  • Improving storm- and flood-monitoring capabilities
  • Bringing new-generation lighting systems and communications networks to developing areas, improving health and educational prospects
  • Ensuring food safety and adequate clean water around the world.
That's all worth standing up for.

10 December 2012

'Sky at Night' host Sir Patrick Moore: astronomer, writer, inspiration

Sir Patrick Moore, who introduced generations to the wonders of astronomy through his BBC TV show “The Sky at Night,” died 9 December. According to news reports, Moore was the longest-running host of the same television show ever. “The Sky at Night” began its run in April 1957. Moore appeared on its most recent episode, which aired last week, on 3 December.

Sir Patrick Moore: 1923-2012.
(Credit: Paul Grover, by exclusive permission)
"He counted himself as a writer and broadcaster first and foremost. But as Britain's most recognisable scientist for more than 50 years, he inspired countless people to take up astronomy as a hobby or astrophysics as a career,” said colleague Chris Lintott in a tribute published on the BBCwebsite.

Among those many who Moore inspired is Nobel Laureate John Mather, Senior Project Scientist and chair of the Science Working Group for the James Webb Space Telescope and a Fellow of SPIE. Remembering Moore this week, he spoke of his enjoyment of Moore's writings, from childhood on.

Moore was entirely self-taught, passing up an opportunity to enroll at Cambridge. Instead he lied about his age and enlisted in the Royal Air Force at the beginning of World War II.

Moore was noted for the trademark monocle he wore, and for his enthusiasm for scientific subjects. He interviewed guests including astronauts and astronomers, and was instrumental in BBC coverage of moon landings, eclipses, and astronomical events.

In his 1997 book, Exploring the Night Sky with Binoculars, he expressed his frustration with those who questioned the need for expenditures on space exploration. When he heard such questions, he said, “I know that I’m dealing with an idiot.”

Moore passed away at home, surrounded by friends and his cat, Ptolemy. The astronomer, a noted animal lover, had indicated that any memorial donations should go to the UK group Cats Protection.

A statement from the organization called Moore “a dedicated, lifelong cat lover and friend, supporting the charity in many ways over the years.”

See The Sky at Night website for past episodes of the television show, and for more about this "man of extraordinary gifts."