Will our ‘Sputnik moment’ fizzle out?

Carolyn Kaster / AP

President Barack Obama mixes it up with a group of seventh-grade students who are Intel Science Talent Search finalists during a visit to Intel’s headquarters in Oregon on Feb. 18.



By Alan Boyle

One month after President Barack Obama urged America to rise up and respond to a “Sputnik moment” in international high-tech competition, there are rising worries that the trend line for civilian research and development spending is going down rather than up.

The most worrisome development came last Friday, when the House approved a spending plan for the rest of the current fiscal year that would make deep cuts in spending for science and tech programs. The budget for the Energy Department’s Office of Science, for example, would be cut by 18 percent. Ned Sauthoff, head of the U.S. ITER fusion research program, said such a reduction really translates into a roughly 30 percent cut, because a whole year’s worth of spending reductions would have to be spread over about seven months.

If the House’s budget become law, that could mean the shutdown of all the particle accelerators at federal labs, as well as a premature end to dozens of experiments in next-generation biofuels, batteries and nuclear reactors.

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Biomedical research would take a hit as well — which carries a particularly deep sting for geneticist Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as well as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. He believes the 21st century will be “the century of biomedical research,” and worries that the United States could lose its lead in the field to other countries.

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“This is a scary moment,” he said this week at a Harvard seminar to mark the 10th anniversary of the decoding of the human genome. “Far more scary than some satellite going around beeping.”

Vicki Sato, a veteran of the pharmaceutical industry who is now a professor at Harvard Business School, said the current revolution in biomedicine had “much more daunting” consequences than 1957’s Sputnik moment. “If we fail at it, the health consequences, the economic consequences, the competitiveness consequences will be significant — in some ways, more significant than losing the race for space.”

Lander said Obama’s reference to Sputnik was meant to call attention to the current budgetary tug of war. Cutting the deficit without properly investing in future innovation would result in a “Pyrrhic victory,” he said. “We will end up with a balanced budget and a second-rate nation.”

White House science adviser John Holdren said something similar during last weekend’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. “Everybody is looking at China and saying, if we don’t lift our game, China is going to eat our lunch economically,” he told reporters, “because the amount they are investing in science, technology and innovation, while it has not yet reached anything like our level, is rising very quickly.”

You might expect people like Lander and Holdren to say those sorts of things, considering that they’re Obama’s top counselors on scientific issues. But how about physicist Ray Orbach, who served as the Department of Energy’s under secretary for science under President George W. Bush? In an editorial written for the journal Science, Orbach said he watched the House approve its budget bill “with a mixture of astonishment and dismay.”

“Other countries, such as China and India, are increasing their funding of scientific research because they understand its critical role in spurring technological advances and other innovations,” he wrote. “If the United States is to compete in the global economy, it too must continue to invest in research programs.”

Orbach, who is now the director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, said it was vitally important for the Senate to restore funding for science in the current fiscal year. “Failure to do so would relegate the United States to second-class status in the scientific community and threaten economic growth and prosperity for future generations of Americans,” he wrote.

One way or the other, this phase of the budget battle will reach a climax next week, when the current legislation that governs federal spending expires. There’s already talk of a costly government shutdown if the GOP-controlled House, the Democrat-controlled Senate and the White House can’t reach a deal by March 4. Maybe they should just bring in a few engineers to straighten out this silly budget mess.

What do you think? Register your opinion in the mini-poll above (unscientific, of course) and expand upon your view in the comment space below.

More about politics and science:

* Science shifting in a ‘Sputnik moment’ * White House issues scientific integrity memo * How political shifts will spin science as well

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