When the much ballyhooed Super Committee failed to reach an agreement to address the national debt last year, committee members put in place an automatic spending cut mechanism so draconian and unpalatable it was thought that Congress was certain to act before it went into effect. The mechanism, in short, slashes nearly all of the federal government’s annual discretionary budgets by 8.4 percent. Unfortunately, we’ve arrived at a point when not even across the board cuts can spur action.
Should the president and Congress fail to reach an agreement by January 1, 2013, the automatic cuts – otherwise known as sequestration –take effect, threatening government-supported basic research. This is distressing news for a country in which nearly half of all basic research was funded by the government in 2009.
Basic research is part of our national fabric, and the government’s long history in supporting it has paid enormous dividends. With the help of agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education, researchers were able to develop technologies like global positioning systems (GPS), the Internet, compact disc (CD) players, and even Google’s search engine. There’s a better than even chance that you, the reader, has enjoyed the conveniences of at least one of the four.
NSF, boasting that it embarks on “high risk, high pay off” projects, supports those endeavors that are so expensive a single research institution or investor can’t finance them. It provides funding to about 20 percent of the nation’s basic research. Cuts in the NSF budget could effectively stall any large scale research projects currently underway.
Any automatic cuts in January also risk jeopardizing our research activities for years to come. The Department of Education, which is providing today’s students with the skill sets needed to take on twenty-first century challenges, invested more than $515 million in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education in 2012 alone. At a time when many other countries are making substantially higher investments in STEM programs, and when the U.S. is struggling to regain its STEM leadership, now is not the time to make arbitrary, automatic cuts in STEM education.
Quite simply, cuts to these and similar agencies that fund basic research and help inspire STEM curiosity would reduce the potential for future groundbreaking discoveries.
Basic research and STEM education together represent the future foundation for innovation, job creation and economic growth. The choice for Congress and the president is clear: failing to act will risk sending our still recovering economy into stagnation, or worse, a recession. It’s imperative that a bipartisan solution be found to stave off this looming crisis, ensuring that we remain the world’s incubator for innovation.
To learn more, watch the American Chemical Society’s video here.