Shortsighted

Jeff Lab cuts are another sign of the nation's science slump

"Penny wise and pound foolish." "Sticking your head in the sand." "Mortgaging the future." Or even "cutting off your nose to spite your face." It's hard to tell which cliché best describes the decision of a congressional conference committee to pull the budget rug out from under nuclear physics research, but the Jefferson Lab in Newport News and other Department of Energy labs are going to take the hit.

All the clichés fit, really, because this decision is shortsighted, will work to the detriment of the nation and, worst of all, is unnecessary.

It's shortsighted because the only way for this nation to retain its technological and intellectual edge is to conduct basic scientific research — the kind that goes on at the Jeff Lab — and to exploit the discoveries that come from it — which is the job of the businesses that rely on the lab to keep moving the frontier forward. A few years ago, a Nobel laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health zeroed in on the payback of research: "Medical advances may seem like wizardry. But pull back the curtain, and sitting at the lever is a high-energy physicist, a combinatorial chemist or an engineer." That's certainly true of Jeff Lab discoveries that have been translated into medical wizardry, including enhanced cancer-detecting power for technology such as X-rays and MRIs.

It's shortsighted — the strategic equivalent of "sticking your head in the sand" — because other nations are taking a hard run at leadership in science and engineering and technology. Undermining the lifeblood of eminence by cutting the funding for basic scientific research will only put us at a greater disadvantage. And at a disadvantage we are, in some ways, given the pitiful condition of science education in our K-12 system and our reliance on foreign scientists to fill our graduate programs in these fields.

It's shortsighted because if we don't invest in our future, we won't have much of one. The kind of basic research done by centers such as the Jeff Lab, plumbing sub-atomic mysteries, isn't likely to be picked up by industry or academia, which lack the incentives and facilities.

The lab is used by scientists from all over the world — preserving, in a specialized arena, a spirit of international cooperation that, in the current environment, the United States can't afford to squander.

The $34 million cut came, seemingly, out of the blue. Both the House and Senate had recommended giving the Energy Department science program more money, not less, as President Bush recommended. The hatchet job happened behind closed doors as the conference committee made the final decisions about the appropriations bill far from the public scrutiny and discussion that should surround decisions about national priorities.

How the cut will be spread among the labs hasn't been decided. But when Bush proposed a cut of this magnitude, the Jeff Lab's operators said it would mean a $6.9 million reduction for the lab, a 25 percent cut in scientific output and up to a 10 percent cut in personnel.

Massive cuts to aeronautics research. Cuts to basic physics research. And why? In part to pay for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. Talk about "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

And why "penny wise and pound foolish" and "mortgaging the future"? Because of all the discoveries forgone, the prosperity unrealized, the benefits unsecured when research is not done.

In a piece in The Washington Post two years ago, Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, warned of the consequences of continuing the decade-long pattern of eroding funding of science at the Department of Energy: "It is only a matter of time until such inattention to this key component of our national science base manifests itself in scientific discoveries not made, technologies not seen and, more ominously, America's security not protected."