I thought that this past summer was nuts, but now I realize it was just the packet of sunflower seeds to this winter’s vacuum-packed can of fancy cashews. With the omnibus bill a living threat to the U.S. science program, the consequences have started to land on the table. Remember – the goal of science is to do science. If you employ a thousand people for a project, if the science goes away then all the people do, too. Find a way to target layoffs, and you might keep the science moving while leaving a fraction of the workforce totally or temporarily jobless. It’s a terrible but real balancing act that businesses, and now our nation’s scientific effort, go through.
The New York Times had a short but detailed article on the consequences to Fermilab, currently one of two particle physics labs in the U.S. and, in the future, the only planned such laboratory. Fermilab was hit doubly hard because it was to be the Nation’s hub for International Linear Collider efforts, with a plan to host a bid to sight that window on the Terascale. In addition, one of its near-term projects – NOvA – was zeroed out. The article says that there are plans to resurrect the funding next year, but I am having a hard time remembering the last time a canceled experiment in one year was brought back in another. It’s happens to TV shows – witness “Firefly”, the only canceled show to become a motion picture – but not in Congress. That money becomes somebody else’s entitlement, regardless of the peer review process that was taking place to justify the money for science. Taking it back is nearly impossible.
I am left with many questions before this Christmas. What will happen to SLAC? The Director will address us all in early January on the plans to absorb the budget shock. Where did the money go? Who benefited from this hidden omnibus process? What staffers moved what lines around to save projects for their boss’ district, or what staffer decided an additional dime spent on science was a dime wasted? It’s inconceivable that a Congressperson could have made these decisions alone; a $500 billion dollar budget is hundred of pages long. They have help on these matters, so who did this to us? Who cut off the national science program at the ankles?
Most important, how do we make people realize what’s been taken from them? How do we let science teachers know that there will be less here in the U.S. that they can point their eager students to as they start learning about quantum weirdness, or Einstein, or string theory? How do we let mom and pop know that the underpinning of their mobile phone, their satellite dish, their GPS, their computer hard drive, is suffering? How do we let Congress know the cost to the nation?
I would call on all of you to write your local news, to write to Congress, and let them know how this affects you. I especially encourage students to do this. You carry more weight than a professor because your choice to do science here in the U.S. is threatened, and thus the future of your education is threatened. Congress may not understand science, but they understand a student whose future is cut short by their decisions.
Ironically, at a time when unemployment is a concern, when innovation and competition are at stake, when the future of this nation’s economy is under doubt, Congress makes a premiere science institution, one of many affected by this budget, wish employees a happy holiday and at the same time suggests they may not have jobs when they come back. Way to go, Congress. Way to save America’s jobs.