If Congress's intransigence sends us over the fiscal cliff next week, the short-term economic consequences will be devastating. But what will happen over the long term? Cuts and tax increases on the middle class will hurt - but perhaps the greatest casualties will be the discoveries that were never made and the industries that were never created because breakthrough research was stopped in its tracks. If a deal is not reached and automatic trigger cuts take effect, funding for the National Institutes of Health would be cut by $2.5 billion, the National Science Foundation by $586 million, NASA by $417 million, and the list goes on.
No one has ever accused politicians of taking the long view, and it can be hard to appreciate the cascading effect scientific breakthroughs have. For example, microwaves were developed thanks to federal research funding. From microwaves came lasers - developed by Charles Townes, who received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. Laser technology became the basis of countless technologies that form the infrasturcture of modern life - without laser technology, the Internet, satellite broadcasting and digital media, even this Huffington Post page - would not exist.
What would this cost us? Consider the economic impact of the cell phone, another product of federal investment in research. Imagine the jobs that have been created, the commerce that has been facilitated and the tax revenue that has been generated by the cell phone. Imagine how it - and now the SmartPhone - have moved society forward. Now imagine that it never happened.
In our federal labs and universities, researchers are hard at work on the next generation of breakthroughs - developments that will lead to cures and inventions we can't yet imagine. But if we go over the fiscal cliff, research budgets will be decimated, and they will be forced to walk away from their work.
As one of those researchers, and as President of the union representing 6,000 postdoctoral researchers at the University of California, I can tell you that less science funding means less innovation, less economic activity and less progress for society as a whole. To underline our point, we've collected thousands of petition signatures and secured the support of 21 members of Congress who recognize the economic and societal value of scientific research. And we launched the Whiteboard Project so our communities and government leaders can see what is at stake.
Science research is the bedrock of innovation, an economic engine we can't give up on. And the wonder of invention is that it changes the world in unpredictable ways. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it's the things you do not do that cause the most regret. If you agree, join us and make your voice heard.