Left Behind

By Pat Barry and Hanna Lundqvist

It's easy to look at science as an apolitical issue, something apart from partisan discord. But today's news of the first successful test of the Hadron Particle collider underscores a troubling reality that is directly related to the choice facing Americans this fall.

To understand why today's news matters for the November elections you first need to look at the state of the sciences in America. What is a blissful moment for the research team at CERN - Europe's outstanding particle-physics lab - is bittersweet for scientists in the United States.This excerpt from the New York Times' coverage of the particle collider launch gives a taste of things to come through the case of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, the center of particle physics in the United States:

Last year, a sudden budget shortfall -- in essence a retroactive cut when Congress passed a continuing resolution keeping Fermilab's budget at a previous level instead of enacting a heftier budget recommended by the White House -- caused Dr. Oddone to cut 100 jobs and suspend key programs at Fermilab.

Cuts in research and education programs have resulted in a brain drain in the physical sciences. A recent study showed that physics is "now as unpopular among university students as it was when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957. The most worrying prospect is that scientists from other countries, who used to flock to the United States to be where the action is, are now heading to Europe instead. 'Fewer students will come to the U.S.,' says Peter Limon, a physicist at Fermilab in Illinois who is participating in a major LHC experiment. Fermilab's Tevatron, which until this week was the world's largest particle accelerator, has attracted Italian and Japanese scientists in particular, along with others from countries such as India. 'They tend to stay. It is a major source of our intellectual ability in the United States,' Limon says. 'That will decrease.'"

It certainly hasn't always been this way: America has a dizzying scientific history, taking the lead in ushering in the nuclear age, the space age, the computer age, not to mention the Human Genome Project and the fight against AIDS. When Congress is in the mood for cutbacks, the large expenses and lack of a mobilized support base makes science projects quick and easy targets, regardless of the cost of losing the experiment.

America's ability to attract top researchers to our universities has a tremendous impact on our ability to remain atop the global ladder of economic and scientific competiveness; spearheading innovative work in the core sciences could not be more essential to this effort. University of Akron President and member of the President's Council on Science and Technology , Luis M. Proenza wrote that "university-based research and innovation drive economic growth," and according to National Science Foundation estimates, research and development accounted for "5 percent of real GDP growth between 1959 and 2004, and 7 percent between 1995 and 2004." Despite this contribution to the U.S. economy, federal support for basic and applied research in academia has declined in real terms between 2004 and 2005 and is expected to decline further, according to a recent report. News about the success of the particle collider drives home the point that the funding woes of major U.S. research centers are painfully real.

Some may choose to look at this dilemma as a bipartisan problem, one which both parties have an interest in resolving. But this election cycle, and specifically John McCain's budgetary policy, makes clear that there are crucial differences between the two parties on government expenditures, and that these differences will impact the future of scientific research in the United States. Barack Obama has been quite clear on this matter, stating that he would expand federal funding for R&D and make the tax credit for research permanent. Additionally, Obama's answers to the questions submitted by Science Debate 2008 indicate that support for science, especially academic research, would be a fundamental part of his administration.

John McCain however, has largely been silent on the types of concerns expressed by scientists at Fermilab and universities across the country. He has expressed rhetorical support for science and technology spending and been in sync with Obama on the tax-credit for research. However, a closer examination of his positions in this area shows that the primary benefactors of his policies would be corporations, not universities or research centers. On that front, he has been conspicuously silent, not even answering the questions put together by the team at Science Debate 2008.

Moreover, when you weigh McCain's government proposals against his commitment to "not leave office without balancing the budget", you begin to wonder where American universities will fit in to his administration's budgetary tableau. His tax policies could cut government revenues by close to 4 trillion dollars, yet he would expand national security expenditures by dramatically increasing the size of the armed forces beyond the Pentagon-recommended levels and by committing to the transformation of Iraq with little regard to the cost. You couple these budget drains with McCain's commitment to extreme fiscal hawkishness (a contradiction McCain has not explained) and his balance sheet begins to look like it won't leave much room for the kind of contributions that American universities so sorely need.

If you're still not sure where this is headed, you need only look to the squabble between President Bush and Congress over last year's omnibus bill. Here, the Bush administration's calls for fiscal discipline put massive constraints on members of Congress, who were forced to pit the administration's wartime spending against domestic priorities in a competition for federal dollars. At an impasse, House and Senate Democrats cowed to Bush's demands, cutting billions from domestic spending to meet the budgetary requirements of the Iraq war. Fermilab and other science research projects were among the victims of these unfortunate cuts, and yet the 2007 omnibus was probably less unwieldy than anything Congress is likely to expect from a McCain administration.

It is clear that scientific research is already senselessly low on the budgetary priority list; in a McCain administration, it is likely to fall further.

Patrick Barry is a Research Associate at the National Security Network. Hanna Lundqvist also works for NSN, and is member of University of Chicago's class of 2008.