What sequestration means for science funding

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At a time when funding is already tight and competition for grants is already fierce amongst scientists, money for research is going to get even tighter. The recent sequestration, due partly to the deadlock between the President and Congress, included a five percent cut to both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which together provide the vast majority of public funding to research.

For Alabama alone, the sequestration cut means a loss of $13.6 million in just NIH grants. Across the entire nation, NIH funding will be reduced by over $1.2 billion.

While across-the-board cuts were inevitable, cutting science funding is literally cutting into the future. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology notes that funding has already been declining steadily since 2004. These new budget cuts, especially on such a short timescale, would be disastrous.

On the most immediate side, such budget cuts would impact employment and the local economies. Much of the grants pay the researchers’ salaries; the loss of funding would cause a significant number of talented people to leave the field of science. Indirectly, these cuts would also impact the supporting economies of research, such as the sectors of manufacturing that provide equipment and resources.

As budgets tighten, many promising ideas are not going to get off the ground, especially in the areas that directly affect human health. This means the loss of many potentially life-changing discoveries. What if an unapproved project, if funded, were able to find a cure for cancer? What if an unfunded proposal led to the creation of a resistant strain of wheat that could ameliorate the food crisis?

The science cuts will also cut into the future economies. After discoveries mature, they move into the industry, becoming valuable technologies that create countless jobs. Take the transistor, for example. Its creation led to the introduction of the Digital Age, with myriads of industries built upon it.

Perhaps the most disturbing effect is the future of the nation. Since the Industrial Age, the United States has led the world in scientific discoveries and applications, from the light bulb to the airplane to gene therapy. The slowdown in research means that the United States is slowly losing its edge against other countries. This could already be seen in physics, as the Large Hadron Collider in Europe is doing what the Superconducting Super Collider would have been doing in Texas, had funding gone through.

Though it is inevitable that science funding is cut during sequestration, I still find it troubling. Politicians atop Capitol Hill, instead of bickering between themselves over ideology, should find room to compromise and work together to save the economy and our future.

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