American research facing a squeeze from sequester: A Q&A with Rep. Rush Holt

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Much has been written about the economic hand grenades being lobbed by Congress’ sequestration and its indiscriminate across-the-board budget cuts. If the short-term effects are in question, try pinning down concrete thoughts about the long-term damage.

Scientific research is one place where budget cuts might reach well into the future. Could sequestration kill the next Google?

Rep. Rush Holt, the New Jersey Democratic congressman and an actual rocket scientist, spoke recently with Star-Ledger editorial writer Jim Namiotka about the sequester’s impact on research and development.

Q. What kind of scientific research, specifically, will most suffer under the cuts of sequestration?

A. Federally funded research is already at half the level it was in the 1960s, as a percentage of GDP. We are under-investing.

The private sector has made up some of that loss — but they tend to invest in different types of R&D. If you want to develop a certain kind of light bulb, private industry will do that. If you want to revolutionize how energy is stored and scaled, the government does that. If you want to look at the basics of how climate works, the giant computer models that measure air and water currents, the Weather Channel’s not going to do that. You need government funding.

Q. Ultimately, what’s the potential for damage?

A. Short-term, it’s a loss of economic activity. Our economy is already struggling. The private sector isn’t investing, hiring or building the way we’d like to keep people working in good jobs. The public sector can fill some of that gap — if we only would.

The payback in publicly supported research has been huge. You never know what will pay off big.

Nuclear magnetic resonance research has resulted in MRI medical imaging. Looking at microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, that became the laser. There was federal funding for that. A couple years ago, a couple of grad students got government funding for digital library searches. We now know that as Google.

Any cut means potentially important work doesn’t get done. How important? We’ll never know.

Q. Once sequestration ends, won’t research projects get their funding back?

A. I think we will lose good researchers we need for research in energy, transportation, health care and so many other areas. If a project is interrupted or stopped, it’s hard to get it going again. The researchers move on to other things.

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