December 31, 2010

US Science Threatened By Budget Crisis

A budget crisis in the American government is threatening the country's domination in science and technology that could weaken research investment just as other countries such as China are boosting scientific spending, according to US experts.

Republicans, who won back the majority of the House of Representatives in November's mid-term elections, have promised to cut federal spending in order to reverse the massive national deficit that has grown to nearly 10 percent of US gross domestic product (GDP).

President Barack Obama also recognized the need for spending cuts and has proposed a five percent cut across many government agencies in 2011, but Republicans are pushing for a bigger 10 percent spending cut.

Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told the AFP news agency that the spending cuts could translate into a five to ten percent cut in research and development in the science sector for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

"One big fear is that one version of the Republican agenda suggested bringing funding back to 2008 levels and that for science would be catastrophic," said Leshner. "These kinds of budget cuts work against the ultimate national goals of restoring the US economy and its international prowess."

Nearly all "competitor countries, including India, China and Korea, are increasing investments in science and engineering research, development, and education," he added. "US funding looks like it could be heading the opposite direction."

That trend concerns scientists who want to encourage younger people to enter the field of science, and who want to maintain a cutting edge in science and engineering which fuel economic growth, Leshner told AFP.

He said this would "have two consequences that are very grave."

The first "would affect the making of discoveries and the pace of discoveries." And the second, "it will send a message to young scientists, or potential scientists that this country is not committed to science, exactly at the time that our major competitor countries... are in fact investing in science," he noted.

The National Academy of Sciences says China has moved from 14th place to 2nd place behind the United States in the number of studies published.

China has also become one of the leading exporters of high technology and aims to make more advances in environmentally friendly technologies.

China has also begun a program to "buy back" native scientists who were trained in other countries, Leshner said. "China's commitment to science is very clear."

Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, told CNN in a recent interview that nearly "all the science and technology research that we take from granted now came out of the Defense Department spending post World War II."

Among those inventions are semi-conductors, the Internet, Global Positioning Systems, all of which gave rise to multibillion dollar industries. Such programs "are periodically under federal budget attack for one reason or another and yet they are literally the start of billion dollar industries. It's important that that investment occur," said Schmidt.

But other industries of the future, such as nanotechnology advances in medicine, require a level of specialization that the US is not ready for yet, said Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM.

"The problem in America today is the next level of industries requires a level of skill, educational level, that we are not producing in this country," Gerstner told CNN.

"We are not producing workers who have the skills to move up the next step. So we got a competition for high-paying jobs, high-return jobs, and we are not, in America, investing in the skills of our workers to allow us to compete globally in those industries," he said.


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