Sunday, January 27, 2008

When Budgets Are Tight, Cut Science

It has become a common occurrence in the U.S. to cut essential spending, as long as it is discretionary, when times get tough. The cuts always come before any tax increases, and the rational for such moves comes from a skewed interpretation of market capitalism. The cuts often come to programs that have clear economic impact, provide good jobs, and usually benefit society in the short and long term. That is why the recent cuts to nationally funded scientific research in the latest budget should come as no surprise. 

The venerable Fermi Lab in Chicago saw its budget cut by $22 million, requiring the elimination of hundereds of jobs. This cut was instead of what many expected would be a modest increase in funds going to this important laboratory. Along with the cuts to Fermi Lab, the U.S. was also forced to withdraw its participation in an international effort to construct a fusion reactor (ITER is the name of the project, Latin for "The Way") in France after Congress slashed all but $10.7 million of what was slated to be a $160 million allocation. While the other participating countries in the ITER project half expected the U.S. to founder on their obligations - they have learned to expect the inanity of our Congress - it is nonetheless a major setback. 
The fact that this project was cut is a prime example of the mentality of our government. Here is a cooperative international effort to build the first large scale test fusion reactor, to develop a technology that is the major hope for the generation of energy in the future, and the U.S decides to all but drop out. The project will go ahead, albeit at a much slower pace, but it just goes to show that our Congress is not only impervious to the wishes of the country, it is also incredibly myopic.

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