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Rene Bellwied | USLHC | USA

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Will the financial crisis cause a science crisis ?

The 700 Billion Dollar government bailout of struggling financial institutions in the U.S. will likely soon cast its shadow over government funded science projects. Steve mentioned in his blog last week that things are happening already ‘under the radar’ in Washington that might affect us greatly. As a first step the House overwhelmingly voted in favor of a continuing resolution rather than a real budget until March 09, when the new administration will be in place. The continuing resolution for science funding was frozen to the level of the 2008 budget without any provisions to include the supplemental funding that was late in the year appropriated in order to keep large projects such a Fermilab afloat. So it is expected that, by the beginning of 2009, some of the major U.S. National Laboratories will be in dire financial trouble again . The impact on beam times, experiment operation and new projects etc. can not even be estimated yet. 

There is very little chance that the America Competes act, which asked for doubling the NSF and DoE budgets over the next ten years, can be enacted in these times when presidential candidates are already indicating that their most pressing programs, such as health care, might take a backseat to finding 700 Billion Dollars in the budget that is already weakened by extensive war expenditures.

We need to mobilize the community. We need to make sure that Washington understands that a slowing down of scientific enterprises and government funded research and development will directly lead to a slowing down of the economy and in the long run to a halt of scientific ingenuity, which was the driving force behind much of the market boom in the 90′s, and for that matter throughout the past century. This is not the time to save on science. This is the time to make science innovation one of the pillars of the evolving re-structuring of the market economy.

If you want to help and you are a scientist in the U.S., please join a user group and stay in touch with their outreach efforts. There is, for example, the US-LHC users group (https://www.usluo.org) or the users group at RHIC (http://www.rhicuec.org). All major user groups are part of the National User Facility Organization (http://www.nufo.org), an outreach organization which has, in part, been formed to facilitate more communication between users at national science facilities and lawmakers in Washington. You can also volunteer to become part of a NUFO list that organizes meetings between congressional leaders and scientists in your specific congressional district. Just send information to info@nufo.org. If you are a concerned citizen please make yourself heard by communicating with your local representative in the House and the Senate. 

There might be difficult times ahead for federal funding of basic research. We need to get involved in the process and convince our politicians of something that many major business leaders know for a long time: There is no economic future without scientific innovation.  And this innovation often comes form the most fundamental research projects worldwide. The LHC will be a perfect example.

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5 Responses to “Will the financial crisis cause a science crisis ?”

  1. Paul says:

    I read that plans to build a Super Collider in Texas was stopped by Congress. Who knows more about this and how is it related to the present lack of scientific support in the U.S.?

  2. Richard Mitnick says:

    On the Texas thing, our brilliant Congress declared that they could see no immediate material gain from the enterprise of a collider.

    You know, many of them, the last job they had was as a very popular dog catcher.

  3. [...] Since we’re in a financial crisis (you may have heard a little about it…), there is some concern about the level of funding for basic research in the near (and long-term) future. While there are a [...]

  4. This is a personal view.

    The Superconducting Super Collider was canceled (finally) in October 1993. A big issue in the 1992 election was deficit reduction. Many members of Congress, especially in the House, had run on a platform of deficit reduction by cancelling projects. Many of the same dynamics exist in this year’s election. So we may expect to see declining or frozen expenditures on basic research.

    The list of vulnerable projects in 1992-93 included the International Space Station (ISS) and military bases around the country, including three in Texas. The ISS had a big operation in Texas. The SSC project had been supported by Presidents Reagan and Bush, but President Clinton won the 1992 presidential election and although expressing support for the SSC, it was not a leading priority. Although the Senate also supported the continuation of the SSC, the House did not and some House members spearheaded a successful drive to kill it. (Jim Slattery was one House member; he is currently running for the Senate in Kansas.) I believe this was primarily to have an example of cost-cutting to take back to the public, where there was no great constituency in favor. One bill was entitled “DEFICIT REDUCTION THROUGH SUPERCONDUCTING SUPERCOLLIDER TERMINATION ACT.”

    The ISS and the three bases in Texas survived, so the Texas delegation did OK.

    Arguments about unreasonable escalation of cost were made. However, this is a complicated argument. It depends on interpretation of the rules that the Dept of Energy imposed on the funding, the effects of inflation and stretch out, and whether design changes to ensure reliable performance were necessary. Costs changed from $4.4 billion in 1982 to to $5.9B in 1989. Given 7 years of inflation, this is not unreasonable. The initial estimate did not include the cost of obtaining and developing the site, as FermiLab was to be included as a possible site. This amount would be large (about $1B). Technical changes, including increasing the aperture from 4cm to 5cm, raising the last stage of injection from 1 TeV (Tevatron) to 2 TeV, and stretchout (paying the construction team for years longer), made for the rest of the increase. By the way, the State of Texas put up at least $0.5B for the site costs.

    As for mismanagement, teams from Congress and other bodies descended on the SSC Lab in 1993 to review management issues. So many that the SSCL lab had to set aside office space and conference room space, and other support, for these teams. Despite all of that, I do not recollect reports of mismanagement by the Lab. Critics resorted to trivial issues, including expenditures of a few hundred dollars approved by the Dept. of Energy.

    Congress cannot expected to be consistent on what is seen as a issue; it depends on the detailed politics of the moment. The first cost estimate in 1984 for Space Station Freedom (now the ISS) was $8B. At the time of SSC cancellation, the Space Station was estimated to cost $17.4B. Current estimates range from $35B (now) up to $100B (finished), with operating costs from $5B to $8B a year. The SSC could have been built with 2 years of today’s ISS funding! In a recent review, the following statement was made:
    “While the magnitude of space station cost growth is large, it is not unexpected when compared to past major Department of Defense programs and other large NASA programs.” Still, we have the ISS but no SSC.

    Expenditures on science needs justification to the public (not unreasonable). The best justification is in terms of immediate return: cures for diseases, improved weapons, or other practical products.

    Saying that basic research has historically had valuable spin-offs in the long term seems to have little weight, or at least not enough.

  5. Ric says:

    Did it ever occur to anyone that perhaps it is science that is causing the financial crisis?

    Take a look at this (from Wikipedia), IMO these events seems a little to co-incidental:

    September 10 – The proton beam is circulated for the first time in the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and the highest-energy particle accelerator, located at CERN, near Geneva, under the Franco-Swiss border.[73][74]

    September 15 – Global financial crisis: Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy protection, in the largest bankruptcy in United States history.[77]

    October 21 – The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is officially inaugurated. It is a collaboration of over 10,000 scientists and engineers from over 100 countries as well as hundreds of universities and laboratories.[112][113][114][115]

    October 28 – Global financial crisis: The Dow Jones Industrial Average gains 889.35 points, 10.88%, and brings the total above 9,000 points in the market’s 2nd best day ever.[118]

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