Jack Sprat Could Eat Iraq

It’s been a busy week on many fronts, and this is the first opportunity I have found to add some thoughts to this page. Besides the fact that this is high-energy physics conference time (one of two spikes in conference activity for my field each year), this is also the time of year when the executive branch of the U.S. government makes public its budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.

This is going to be a tough year. With the cost of our military actions overseas still a firm and increasing part of the budget, domestic programs are taking a licking. I’m a firm believer in fiscal responsibility, at home and in the capitol. However, I am also a firm believer that the Federal Government serves a greater good that transcends the abilities of its individual citizens, and that good must serve the citizens.

That said, it looks so far like education is taking a big hit in the budget. It’s tough to see past the FUD that both sides of this issue put into the media, but I suspect a survey of teachers and students who benefit from particular programs in the education system would show there is growing fear about what will happen come October, 2005, when the FY2006 fiscal year begins.

Education is dear to my heart – I see it as a critical part of the mission of science, and I see it starting from age 3 and 4 and continuing all the way until death. One of my colleagues at MIT has two very young children, and even though they are only a handful of years old I find it amazing how much they soak up. I see in them the simple clay that can be easily molded in our modern world to be the stereotypes of the last generations, and yet I also see the ambition and the self-confidence needed to overcome those images and forge their own educational destinies.

Closer to my heart is the practice of science itself, and here I am getting jittery. The “American Institute of Physics”:http://www.aip.org has released an FYI on the proposed budget, and there are tough times ahead. For my own branch of physics, high-energy (also called “particle”) physics, the summary goes as follows:

“HIGH ENERGY PHYSICS: Down 3.1%, or $22.5 million, from $736.4
million to $713.9 million. Run times would be increased over FY
2005 levels at the Fermilab Tevatron (6% more operating hours) and
SLAC (54% more hours). Construction funding is continued for the
Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Europe, which Orbach expects to
begin operations in 2008. The BTeV project at Fermilab would be
cancelled. An amount of $30 million would be transferred to BES for
operation of the SLAC linac.”

Source: AIP FYI #16 (2005)

The lab where I conduct the majority of my research, SLAC, has had a tough past 6 months. After an electrical accident, the laboratory took corrective action procudures while waiting for the Department of Energy to determine whether normal operations were possible. This incurred a six month delay in the resumption of operations by my experiment, a significant amount of time when the name of the game is “take data, take data, take data”. We’re almost ready to go again, and the change in schedule means that we have to run for a larger fraction of FY06 than originally planned (thus the 54% increase in operations mentioned above). It looks like the budget allowed for this, but I worry now what will happen to other programs, or down the road for our own program.

As for other labs, programs are being cancelled. The core missions are moving forward, but to my eyes it looks like much else must be sacrificed – investments that are meant to bear fruit in the future – in order to simply support the status quo. Any scientists will tell you that maintaining the status quo has rarely led to scientific breakthroughs. And one then has to ask, how many of those breakthroughs shaped our modern world? How many are so indispensable that we don’t even think about them? How many of them, if not pioneered by unchecked scientific enthusiam – enthusiasm that wasn’t curbed by the budgets of patrons, kings, or governments – would have stalled and lain in wait for the next unchecked mind?

So in the midst of all this fear, uncertainty, and doubt, I see terrible things in store for my homeland. I see a nation fooled into thinking it is safe, where those who might help to insure security are shut from the process or budgeted out of existence. I see a nation accepting military action without the force of question required to cease it. I see a nation woefully committed to cleaning up its own mess in Iraq. I see a nation bleeding its educational and scientific base dry to accomplish its clean up, and I see it looking away from the mess it will have to deal with when students and teachers and scientists go elsewhere.

I see a government prepared to spend all it can to eat the cost of Iraq, while leaving the rest with lean.

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