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Congress Could Deal Death Blow to American Scientific Exceptionalism

The pattern of polarizing rhetoric and inability to compromise is sure to continue. However, both Democratic and Republican voters should insist their leaders act and agree to maintain funding for scientific research and development.
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President Barack Obama in January emphasized his long-running support of scientific research by noting in his State of the Union Address:

"Innovation also demands basic research. Today, the discoveries taking place in our federally financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells but leave healthy ones untouched... Don't gut these investments in our budget. Don't let other countries win the race for the future."

In the current political climate, it may be surprising to know he has support from notable Republicans. Earlier this month, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told Congress that members: "Let government do what it does best: fund basic research and applied research, to create the next generation of industries, then let the market create the solutions."

Historically both parties have agreed on government support for scientific research -- and for good reason. Such research fuels innovation; educates an exceptional American scientific workforce and feeds industry via a pipeline of new technologies.

Yet as research continues to progress, funding of large scientific projects is waning. Last year, for example, at the Fermi National Laboratory outside Chicago, the Tevatron -- America's largest and most energetic particle collider -- shut down. The four-mile atom smasher was deemed too expensive. The closure signaled the end of U.S. leadership in high energy physics with the Tevatron dethroned by a much more powerful machine, the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile behemoth that spans both France and Switzerland. Not only did the Tevatron excel scientifically, but also its development forced scientists to create technologies that now benefit everyone. For example, the technology to mass-produce large superconducting magnets, such as those used in MRI machines, was developed at Fermilab and adopted by industry.

Despite the loss of the Tevatron, Fermilab will press ahead to new frontiers, building accelerators that may not be as energetic as their European counterparts, but that are much brighter. Experiments using high-power accelerators may not only continue contributing to scientific understanding of the universe, but could also contribute to our nation's energy independence. Among multiple other uses, novel nuclear reactor designs driven by such high-powered accelerators could mitigate significant problems associated with our current nuclear fuel cycle. These reactors would be much safer and less susceptible to meltdowns; they could also treat our spent nuclear fuel so that it wouldn't need to be stored underground for tens of thousands of years.

Many of the new treatments that more safely kill cancer cells, to which Obama referred, are also performed with such accelerators. Beams of accelerator-generated neutrons are fired at the cancerous tumor, killing the malignant cells. This treatment is used against inoperable tumors that may be resistant to conventional radiation therapies.

The extent and utility of government supported research and development is profound. It ranges from discovering new and cleaner sources of energy, to space exploration at NASA, research in agriculture and transportation, as well as significant medical advances. The list of possible benefits is long.

Yet funding is taking a hit. The U.S. House appropriations committee last month recommended a significant reduction in research and development spending. According to an AAAS analysis, next year's cuts alone could be as high as 8 percent or nearly $5 billion below what the president is requesting. Even more stunning: total non-defense R&D funding would end up 27 percent less than Obama's request over the decade.

These dramatic cuts would turn off a unique engine of growth, profoundly inhibit innovation, and deal an astonishing blow to American exceptionalism.

As we head into the election season, the pattern of polarizing rhetoric and inability to compromise is sure to continue. However, both Democratic and Republican voters should insist their leaders act and agree to maintain funding for scientific research and development.

By maintaining our commitment to our national scientific infrastructure, we can harness the incredible body of technology, ingenuity and talent that has historically driven American economic growth.

That's something we can all agree on.

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