For months, Brookhaven National Lab was staring at the face of devastating House budget cuts of $1.1 billion that threatened to cut the staff by 930, or one third, and potentially discontinue the operations of internationally renown facilities like the RHIC particle accelerator. But a budget compromise released on April 8, called FY11, reduced that $1.1 billion to only $35 million, marking a definitive effort to not let science take the back seat even amid the nation’s struggling economic recovery.
“We don’t yet have any new info on how or if the final budget deal will affect us,” said Media & Communications Manager Pete Genzer, but he stressed the words of BNL’s Deputy Director for Science and Technology Doon Gibbs, who said in a statement provided by Genzer, “…We deeply appreciate Senator Schumer’s, Senator Gillibrand’s, and Congressman Bishop’s support for science and their willingness to protect the Lab and its programs.”
Despite the drastic reduction in cuts, the political intricacies of the decision make it difficult to claim the potential passing of FY11 a victory for science. As the economic situation fails to meet the nation’s spending standards, all sectors, not just science, are taking big hits. But proponents of scientific research, including scientists and politicians alike, have ignited a fight to prove the worth of institutions like BNL in their contributions to not just scientific development, but all areas of the U.S.’s future growth.
Dr. John H. Marburger III, currently vice president of research at Stony Brook University, the university’s former president and a former Science Advisor to President George W. Bush, fought back voraciously when the original budget cuts, which came packaged in the House of Representatives’ HR 1 plan, hit the public limelight back in February.
In a April 7 Huffington Post op-ed titled, “House’s Science Cuts Threaten Our Future,” Marburger made a stand for science research, writing, “In the negotiations now underway to determine what share of needed budget cuts must fall to the tiny and already beleaguered domestic discretionary budget, the role of scientific research must be acknowledged for what it is: the key to our nation’s future.” He also cited an estimate from economists that “approximately half of post-WWII economic growth is directly attributable to R&D-fueled technological progress.”
Now that FY11 has replaced the draconian HR 1, Marburger can reflect on his appeal to such future progress being placed in the hands of research. “What I intended to convey…was that science is all-pervasive in the general cultures and economies of modern nations, and especially the U.S.,” he said in an email message. “Science, however it’s construed, is a small-time player in a budget game that is now of world-historical dimensions. My op-ed was a plea to keep it from being trampled by the elephants,” he added.
But Marburger, with his rich political background, understands the complications involved with FY11 and asserts that the resolution did more forestalling than it did solving by way of gearing itself more towards non-controversial cuts than those to big science. “It is hard to consider the FY11 budget a ‘victory for science.’ I would say it is more like a confirmation that the parties regarded big cuts in science as too controversial to push any farther at this time. That is good news, but it gives few signals about forthcoming budgets,” he said.
Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) was another major player in the backlash campaign against HR 1 throughout the last few months. He organized a large body of bipartisan support and even set up a website, www.wesupportbnl.org, according to Spokesman Oliver Longwell.
Despite Bishop being in full support of federal spending cuts, which he expressed through the voting support of a $38 billion federal year-to-year spending cut, he, like Marburger, also saw HR 1 as a threat to future development. “I recognize that we cannot get our budget under control without painful cuts and without compromise. The litmus test I will apply is whether cuts are painful as opposed to destructive and whether they will cause real damage to Long Island’s economy,” he said in a statement provided by Spokesman Longwell. “I will continue to advocate against cuts to scientific research and education that will hurt our ability to compete in the 21st century global economy and hamstring future growth,” he added.
Longwell himself expresses extreme concern over such spending cuts and what they mean for the future. “Frankly, I am dumbfounded that the Republican majority in the House of Representatives voted to gut federal investment in science, which would cede the leadership of the next generation of scientific innovation to China, India, and other nations who are massively ramping up their own investments in research,” he said. “Fortunately for Brookhaven Lab, Long Island, and our nation, wiser judgments were able to prevail in this case,” he added.
Brookhaven National Lab, the central focus of these cuts here on Long Island, is home to more than just expensive research projects like particle accelerators, and the proponents of scientific research as a key to our future development make that very clear.
One such example is BNL’s participation in the Department of Energy program, America’s Next Top Energy Innovator. The program helps increase the number of startup companies by reducing the cost of options to license available patents to $1,000, which is a fraction of the regular cost according to the BNL press release dated May 2. The ‘option’ refers to the ability for a company to obtain a 6-month time window to apply for a patent license for a particular technology, but only if they submit an intensive business plan outlining their strategy to market the technology.
The program, although only a pilot that will remain in effect until December 15, 2011, is aimed at building a better future in corporate science. “We believe the program will increase the number of successful companies and create new jobs that our nation needs — particularly clean energy jobs,” said Walter Copan, manager of Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Technology Commercialization and Partnerships, in BNL’s official press release.
Dr. Marburger, one of the most politically and scientifically astute proponents of this idea that science is a principle foundation of our future, is not too optimistic about federal spending on research down the line. “All ‘big science’ is at risk in the coming years, mainly because it is big and Congress is under extreme pressure to save money,” he said.
But he steadfastly stands by all forms of science, even the enormously costly projects like the RHIC particle accelerator. “These projects are not just ‘probing around for answers.’ They are part of a deep-seated passion that humanity has to understand the world it lives in…today we have extraordinary tools that are revealing astonishing aspects of our world,” he said. “This is serious stuff – as serious as the art and religion and literature that many people think are what make life worth living.”
Marburger even makes the claim that esoteric science is still supported by the public, despite them not understanding it. “Einstein is the world’s most popular scientist, and Feynman is a popular legend. People love the idea of black holes, dinosaurs, expanding universes, extra dimensions and space exploration,” he said.
What it comes down to for Marburger, and in a sense the entire scientific and political community that is pushing so hard to keep science aloft, is the universal benefits that the hundreds of thousands of projects all around the world are providing to everyone, not just the scientists doing the experiment.
“The public deserves to know why their most talented and productive members care so passionately about these things. The public wants to share that passion, and it’s up to scientists to help. The SSC scientists explained their search for the Higgs boson in a way that made it seem as if we were just looking for some more particles, like the ones we already found but smaller,” he said.
Marburger is referring to the theoretical Higgs boson particle that the largest particle accelerator on the planet, Switzerland’s LHC, is currently searching for. It is, as the Standard Model of particle physics suggests, the source of all particles’ mass.
“The idea of ‘explaining mass’ seems an odd thing to drive such passion, and in fact that’s not really what it’s all about. What is at stake is a vision of the nature of all reality. Try explaining that to your congressman.”