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.

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