Trump's proposed STEM budget cuts a grave mistake

In the 1950s, the late physicist Charles Townes was told he was wasting his time inventing lasers (a kind of powerful light source explained by a theory Albert Einstein published a century ago).

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Meg Urry

In the 1950s, the late physicist Charles Townes was told he was wasting his time inventing lasers (a kind of powerful light source explained by a theory Albert Einstein published a century ago).

Ponder this every time you fire up your computer hard drive, or when a loved one receives life-saving cancer treatment -- both rely on Townes' lasers. In fact, today lasers are an essential part of modern telecommunications, guidance systems, computers, medical treatments (including surgery), civil construction, astronomy, weaponry, harnessing nuclear fusion for energy, and much, much more.

Estimates of the economic impact of lasers today run to trillions of dollars worldwide.

The message here? Revolutionary scientific discoveries can seem obscure and even unimportant when they are first made -- but can have enormous impact decades downstream, reaching into every part of our lives and rendering unimaginable a time when they were not there.

But they don't spring fully formed from the scientist's minds; they take time, sweat, passion, imagination -- and money.

Last month the Trump administration proposed devastating new cuts in funding for STEM research -- STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. President Donald Trump's first full budget proposes to slash research dollars by nearly 17% for fiscal year 2018.

Hard hit would be programs at the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Institute of Standards and Technology. In all, the cuts would strip $12.6 billion from researchers and research institutions.

Let's be clear: Scientists don't want or need handouts. Their students and research need support -- because America needs the results.

Townes' research on lasers was funded by the National Science Foundation and US Navy, not because of any immediate use for the technology but because of the importance of understanding the fundamental behavior of atoms and molecules.

Federal research funding is a long-term investment in our economic and national security. It pays for the equipment and grants that lead to big discoveries, such as the laser; it supports the training of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who are working in the research trenches to solve the challenges that lie ahead for humanity, from a changing climate to workforce productivity and threats to human health.

Many of the most important discoveries are not the result of directed research -- they come from scientists trying to understand how the world works. How does matter behave (atoms, molecules and more fundamental particles)? How do cells operate? Are asteroids a threat or a resource? What is the ultimate fate of the universe?

Since the 1970s, federal investment in research and development has been on a downward trend relative to the economic growth it has largely enabled. And over the past decade, budgets for STEM research and development have declined 10% in purchasing power.

But scientific research requires continuity. A perfect example of the long-term nature of STEM research is the theory of quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of atoms and molecules. When it was being developed in the 1910s and '20s, this theory was pretty esoteric. But as Forbes magazine put it, "The entire computer industry is built on quantum mechanics."

Today, quantum mechanics powers most of the modern US economy and undergirds the future.

It's not rocket science: Politicians, economists and military leaders agree that investment in STEM is essential for the nation's economic prosperity and security. Top business leaders have joined universities and science groups to proclaim STEM investments a national imperative.

And Congress, with bipartisan support, recently increased research and development funding by 5% for this fiscal year, in the omnibus budget bill enacted last month.

So one might have been hopeful when just a few months ago, Trump celebrated the Hubble Space Telescope's exploration of the deep universe and looked forward to future discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor.

I'm astrophysicist, and I was encouraged. His enthusiasm reminded me of how Hubble discoveries and other scientific research have inspired the next generation of scientists, whom I am helping to train.

But if the President truly wishes to see America "expand the frontiers of knowledge," his actions much match his words. We need to invest in science now -- not just at NASA but across all fields.

We need to support research across STEM disciplines and cast a wide net for discovery.

Today the United States benefits from federal investments in decades past. The negative effects of sharp disinvestment now might not be clear for decades, longer than the careers of most policymakers, industry leaders or researchers.

Yet our leadership and strong economy, our ability to save humanity from terrible crises depend on our choices today. Let's choose science.

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