Statement for the Record to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

President Michael Turner - October 11, 2013

Michael TurnerMichael Turner
APS President 2013

The Issue

APS President Michael Turner submitted a Statement for the Record to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation for the October 11, 2013 hearing entitled, "The Impacts of the Government Shutdown on Our Economic Security." 

President Turner's statement outlines the impacts of the current government shutdown on the physics community, including the work of APS members and effects on future scientific enterprise in the United States.

The Statement

U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
The Impacts of the Government Shutdown on Our Economic Security 

October 11, 2013
11:00 AM

Statement for the Record
Dr. Michael Turner, President
American Physical Society  

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Thune: I appreciate the opportunity to share with you the impacts of the government shutdown on the physics community. I’d like to begin with a startling fact: The shutdown of National Institute for Standards and Technology has resulted in three physics Nobel Laureates being furloughed. They are Dr. Eric Cornell and Dr. William Phillips – who won his Nobel with former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, and Dr. David Wineland, who won last year. Dr. Wineland, who was quoted in the Washington Post on Oct. 7, said “On the organization charts, I’m just another worker, another non-essential.” As a result of the shutdown, he opined that his experiments “are completely stopped. It’s very challenging to stay ahead with competitive research when this happens; it just slows the research down.”  

NASA has furloughed 97 percent of its workforce, most likely including at least one additional Nobel Laureate, and leaving vulnerable extremely sensitive and expensive equipment for projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble telescope. The Mars MAVEN mission, which, until now, has been an example of an on-budget and on-schedule project, could be delayed if the shutdown continues, leaving its planned November launch in limbo. Additionally, there is a possibility that it could be delayed until 2018, leading to large budget overruns for the mission due to delay.  

And, as time ticks by, the situation will only get worse. National laboratories and their user facilities should be nurturing future Nobel scientists. Instead, they are beginning a cascade of closures as carryover funds run out. And, although the labs will begin shutdowns at varying times, they have all begun to cancel all travel, construction projects and purchase orders. Instead of doing the groundbreaking work that could lead to the next big innovation, they are instead figuring out how to put the labs into minimal safe mode to ensure people and property are adequately protected. I should add that the workforce is behaving heroically under very difficult conditions. 

As additional labs shut down, more than 50,000 scientists will be denied access to facilities like the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), the Advanced Photon Source (APS) and the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR), putting their research in jeopardy and running the risk of having to start all over again. These and other facilities have fostered some of the most important innovations of our time, spurring our nation’s economic competitiveness and reaping untold benefits for U.S. industry.  

The U.S. has the largest and most impressive Antarctic program in the world but, because of the shutdown of the National Science Foundation (NSF), research being done there has been put into “caretaker status.” Research that was to have been done during this austral summer may not come to pass. According to a statement on the NSF website “…..some activities cannot be restarted once seasonally dependent windows for research and operations have passed, the seasonal workforce is released, science activities are curtailed and operations are reduced.”  

In Antarctica, the sun rises only once a year, in September, heralding the summer flurry of travel, research, construction, and maintenance in a race with the impending March sunset. No planes can land during the dark and deep-frozen winter, so any setup for winter research on this project must happen in the summer. Shutting down the program for a few weeks at this point would mean losing an entire summer season, losing all the data from field research stations, and losing winter data for next year.  

The majority of research in Antarctica takes place from October to February, when it's warmer and there's enough daylight. Scientists who work there depend on housing and transportation provided by the U.S. Antarctic Program, which supports three research stations, including one at the South Pole, that are staffed year-round. At the moment, this support is tenuous. 

If the shutdown is still in effect on Oct 14, the entire United States Antarctic science program will have to be mothballed, impacting the work of Laura Gladstone, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the "IceCube" experiment was developed. "IceCube" is a several hundred million dollar project at the South Pole designed and constructed during the last 20 years. Laura is writing her dissertation on atmospheric neutrino oscillations as part of the IceCube project.  

Stories like Laura’s are rife among the scientific community. The government shutdown has resulted in an interruption of critical research and has the potential to waste millions of taxpayer dollars. In short, the effect of the shutdown on the American scientific enterprise is chilling.  

Even worse, the next generation of scientists, whether they are undergraduates, graduate students, or post docs, are unable to apply for fellowships from NSF or start jobs in government labs. As a result, they are looking overseas for opportunities.  

Meanwhile, our competitors overseas continue to invest ever more money in basic research. We have heard many anecdotes about investments in science being made by China and other Asian countries. However, as APS Director of Public Affairs and Professor of Physics at CCNY, Dr. Michael S. Lubell noted in an op-ed in Roll Call last month, the European Union has also remained steadfast in its commitment to investment in science, funding the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which boosted European Research Council funding by an average annual rate of 11 percent during the past seven years.  

As Dr. Lubell also noted, the warning flags are already up. As last year’s discovery of the Higgs particle at CERN in Geneva demonstrates, Europe can justifiably claim to be the center for high-energy physics — even though the United States had the largest contingent of physicists working there. For fusion energy research, the story is much the same: Cadarache in southern France will be the home of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a fusion megaproject.  

Europe is also vying for bragging rights as No. 1 in neutron physics, synchrotron light research and X-ray free-electron laser capabilities. These phrases may sound arcane to the lay reader, but they have profound meaning for scientists whose research may produce new materials and pharmaceuticals, improve energy efficiency, pin down the structure of biological macromolecules and diagnose disease, among many others. And if Europe becomes the go-to place for such research, the innovation, jobs and economic benefit that it accrues will not be America’s to harvest.  

In the case of physics, Europe’s claim to top billing is reflected in scientific publication data. The American Physical Society is one of the leading publishers of physics research, and its set of Physical Review journals attracts contributors worldwide. Today, according to the latest APS data, for every two published articles from North America, there are about three from Europe.  

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Thune: The U.S. scientific enterprise is being besieged by countries that, despite economic challenges, robustly fund scientific research. Our competitors know that funding scientific research is the critical underpinning of their economic competitiveness. In this country, we are furloughing Nobel Prize-winning scientists and closing facilities that have nurtured them and their work. This is not alarmism. This is simply a fact. And while the game of political “chicken” inside the Beltway drags on, the very basis of our economy’s competitiveness is slowly being eroded. It is only a matter of time before our global lead in the sciences is irreparably harmed.