Big government science gets a reprieve

A year of threats from the House had thousands expecting budget cuts as deep as 20 percent by those determined to drown government science in the bathwater. 

But at the last minute, in December’s final budget, Senate Democrats were able to bring the science and energy research funding levels much closer to the Obama administration’s original budget requests.

In FY2012 appropriations – passed after initial House Republican tantrums to prevent a wage-earners’ payroll tax holiday within it – “Big Government” science escaped the hits Republican lawmakers had threatened.

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science received a small increase to $4.889 billion, below the Obama administration’s request for $5.4 billion, but a slight increase of $46 million.

$275 million was allocated for ARPA-E, half the administration’s request of $550 million [PDF], but an increase over its 2011 level of $180 million, and much higher than the Republican House bill that sought to cut ARPA-E funding to $100 million (which would have been just one quarter of the $400 million that the Democratic House had initially funded the program at in 2009).

Researchers had expected 6 percent cuts in funding earlier this year. 

”We won’t have to shut down our facilities,” Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory told Science Insider in April when a compromise was hammered out. “We may have to adjust how we operate them, but we won’t have to shut them down.”

Any advanced civilization requires taxpayer-funded science at the government level, because the challenges are too complex to be solved by any one company. 

At the government level, scientists can focus on the deep level of pure research that eventually creates the breakthroughs that benefit many industries at once. Private investors need marketable results much faster. This is why Bill Gates and GE’s Jeff Immelt recommended funding ARPA-E at $1 billion this year.

It is essential for our future prosperity that Republican voters begin to understand the civilization-level risks their congressional choices expose us to in a much more globally competitive 21st century.

The “Big Government” they are instructed to drown in the bathtub is not some imagined wasteful bureaucracy, but includes pure research that private companies cannot afford to do – which is the foundation of our advanced civilization. In the middle of the 20th century, when we had much higher levels of taxation and correspondingly higher levels of funding, public science led to 130 Nobel Prizes and breakthroughs like vaccinations and the Internet browser.

Some examples of breakthroughs by government scientists that we have covered at EarthTechling include key research into lithium-air batteries, a boost for solar power from luminescent concentrators and the development of new EV batteries for the auto industry.

* Susan Kraemer, EarthTechling