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Our Opinion: A hidden cost of sequestration

The drastic across-the-board sequestration cuts to the federal budget are coming home to roost in unexpected ways:

Case in point is the harm to the nation’s economic growth that may result from cuts to agencies that support scientific research.

According to James Kakalios, the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, scientists are alarmed about the real danger these cuts will cause to research.

A recent open letter to Congress signed by more than 50 Nobel laureates warned that these cuts would severely damage the work being done at scientific agencies —including the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, all of which fund cutting-edge research that have led to discoveries that improved quality of life, strengthened national security and enhanced economic growth.

The Internet, laser technologies and GPS are but a few of the myriad discoveries that trace their roots to early scientific research, according to Kakalios.

Polls conducted by the American Physical Society have found that many people don’t recognize the role that basic research plays in their daily lives.

Even more under-appreciated is that most of the research that impacts ordinary people is federally funded, carried out at universities and national laboratories with no immediate expectation of profit.

The U.S. government began supporting scientific research in earnest in 1950, with the establishment of the National Science Foundation.

From elucidating the basic properties of novel semiconductors and metals to studying the magnetic structure of atomic nuclei that led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging, tax dollars have supported advanced, exploratory research that has laid the groundwork for new industries and technologies.

One example is tablet computers or smartphones that allow users to alter the display using one or two fingers. This multi-touch interface actually originated from University of Delaware scientists whose work was initially supported by the National Science Foundation.

The best way to train a research scientist is to have him or her do scientific research.

Over the years, federally funded research through the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and other agencies has been a tremendously successful jobs program, Kakalios says, enabling the training of legions of scientists and engineers who have gone on to staff high-technology industries, from Apple to Verizon.

An often proposed solution to the nation’s current budget difficulties is to “grow our way” out of the deficit. But new growth always requires proper seeding and cultivation. It’s time for the nation’s leaders to come together on a long-term budget fix, end the sequestration, and find a responsible way to address deficit reduction.

We agree with Kakalios when he says that scientific research, supported by everyone, is one of the best ways to make sure that the nation is home to the next transformative high-tech industry.

Do we really want to lose our technological edge to China?