The National Labs are under attack, and Al Qaeda is not to blame.
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Rather, the U.S. government is leading this latest charge against science. If you live in the United States and elected our government, you too are to blame.
Here's what has happened in a nutshell.
In Illinois, we have two great National Labs: Argonne and Fermilab.
Both of these Illinois National Labs have had their budgets slashed to the point where there are massive layoffs underway and many important scientific research projects have been cancelled or put on hold.
These are not "cut the fat" changes. Rather, these are "cut out the essential organs" cuts. They put a big part of our national scientific research efforts on life support and jeopardize our national competitiveness.
The National Labs Were an Easy Target
With a war effort in Iraq underway that is estimated to cost over $1 trillion, the National Labs probably should have seen it coming. Non-defense budgets had to be cut in order to fund the war.
The value of high-energy physics research, conducted at Fermilab, is not readily apparent to the average voter and that makes Fermilab, and all the other National Labs for that matter, vulnerable to budget cuts.
There is no money to be made on pure science research in the next fiscal quarter. By definition, pure science research is conducted without a prerequisite for any immediate economic benefit and it requires large amounts of money. For these two reasons, it cannot be effectively conducted by individuals or companies. Only large government agencies, and coalitions of such agencies across the world, can undertake substantive scientific research.
That's the thing about science. You can't plan for a huge breakthrough that will change mankind for the better. But if you do enough science, you surely do find such benevolent discoveries. If you cut scientific research, you are basically saying let's stick with what we've got.
Funding scientific research means you are in an age of enlightenment. Cutting funding for scientific research means you want to return to the Dark Ages.
Some Better PR Might Have Helped
The National Labs brought the budget cuts onto themselves to a certain extent, simply by not promoting their merits aggressively to the public.
In reality, the research conducted at the National Labs has resulted in enormous national wealth for all of us.
The Internet and the World Wide Web are both outputs of government investment in science. Think about it. Without government investment in scientific research, we wouldn't have Google.com, Amazon.com or anything new. With a dwindling manufacturing base, without leadership in the Internet (assuming that we didn't fund its invention), the United States would right now be on a path to economic decline and the whole world would likely be in an economic malaise.
Other things that might not exist were it not for the National Labs include the iPod and MRI machines
Things that are originally developed for use in pure science ultimately bear huge results for all of us. That's why we need to provide adequate funding to all National Labs.
Most people don't get that, so it's easy to get $1 trillion for a war when you can't get $100 million to keep a couple of National Labs fully productive. It's economic myopia of the worst kind.
While many might argue that we are wasting our money in Iraq and the opportunity costs are killing us, others can argue that we are improving the world through our efforts in Iraq. It really doesn't matter which you believe.
The $1 trillion for Iraq can't be juxtaposed against the $25 billion we spend on basic science research in the United States or against the $100 million that Argonne and Fermilab have been shortchanged. Rather, the argument has to be made on its face that scientific research is a worthwhile use of our collective tax dollars.
That's where the PR for the National Labs has been lacking. They should have hired a top advertising agency ages ago and ran a series of TV commercials that tout the benefits of our National Labs. Their work results in major advances in engineering, medicine, and industry…and nobody seems to recognize that basic fact.
Heck, when I go to the movies I see a long trailer for the military forces recruiting people. It would nice to see a trailer by the National Labs that encourages young people to go into science and explains why it's important and how it has helped us immeasurably.
It's Up to Us to Fix This Mess
To be honest, scientists are notoriously bad at marketing so I'm not surprised that the National Labs never built up a respectable PR effort to promote the fact that the United States is a global superpower and a learned nation in large part because of the efforts of the scientists who toil on behalf of our National Labs.
Honestly, it's up to you and me to get the government refocused on supporting science research. Here are a few things you can do:
- Elect Pro-Science Candidates. - When you vote in November 2008, send a message to candidates that you prefer a government that recognizes the value of science. A group called Scientists and Engineers for America will be identifying the pro-science candidates.
- Contact Elected Officials - What can I do to help Fermilab and Argonne? It that's on your mind, it's time to write a few letters. If you live in Illinois, you can write to Senators Durbin and Obama and Representatives Biggert and Lipinski. However, they are already advocating restoration of funding for our National Labs, so you are preaching to the choir. While it certainly helps to let them know you support them in their efforts, it's better to reach out to other legislators. Most importantly, let the Bush administration and all the Republican and Democratic legislators who chose pork over science know that you are upset and are holding them accountable in the upcoming elections. The American Physical Society has created a web page that makes it easy to write Congress to encourage them to restore funding for the National Labs.
- Write to the Media - Start writing letters to as many journalists and editors as you can. In this world, the media is the message. If you can sway them to the side of supporting science, you've won the battle.
- Write to the National Labs to Express Your Support - When one is under attack, it's nice to get letters of support that encourage and motivate you. The people at the National Labs are under siege. We need to let them know that we truly appreciate all of their efforts. At the end of the day, they can make the best case for their existence and we need to help them to stay positive and stay focused. Seriously, take five minutes and write them a letter.
One smart second grader recently wrote a letter to the chairman of the House Science Committee and noted that "Without science the world would be wacko. There might not even be gravity."
From the mouths of babes comes great wisdom.
It seems we are all taking science for granted these days…and, to be sure, we do so at our own peril.
Read More About National Lab Funding Cuts