What a Deal!

August 4, 2011

In a battle of ideologies, the know-nothings won. And their victory combined with a partisan divide over taxes and entitlements virtually guarantees that we will know less, discover less and innovate less. Across-the-board spending cuts — the budgetary equivalent of a butcher’s meat ax – loom for 2013, and absent a return to sanity among elected officials, science will get clobbered, along with everything else our nation depends on for economic growth, security, health and quality of life.

Roads, bridges, education, the arts, water, air quality, national parks – they’re all headed for the austerity grave. Their demise will be the equivalent of Los Angeles’s La Brea tar pits – fossils of a golden age.

And now for a bit of irony: Immediately after passing the Budget Control Act, members of Congress escaped from Washington so fast, you would have thought they were on the lam. In the process they left the FAA frozen in the budgetary locker over union rights and air service for rural America, its lack of authorization costing the government $200 million a week in lost taxes. Coming on the heels of legislation intended to cut the deficit, I’m left wondering, what were they thinking?

So what’s in store for science? Only five years ago, there was bipartisan agreement that the future of America depended on it. That recognition left Nancy Pelosi and George W. Bush under the same tent, however bizarre it may seem. But so compelling was the narrative that political enemies found accommodation in the same accommodation.

Now the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act are but memories, gone up in smoke, casualties of a Tea Party revolution whose members probably don’t know the difference between astronomy and astrology, and worse, don’t even care.

Right after the 2012 election, if everything plays out according to the expectation of Washington insiders, discretionary spending will begin to plummet, with non-defense programs taking a $55 billion hit on January 2, 2013 and nose-diving further a year later.

While Asia is pouring money into scientific research and Europe is fighting the battle to remain competitive, we’re planning to hold a going-out-of-business sale. A decade from now, we’ll be on the dole, wondering how we could have been so stupid, allowing ourselves to be held hostage by a bunch of know-nothings and falling victim to a post-partisan president who meant well but lacked the fortitude to stand up to them.

Getting our fiscal house in order is wise, but foreclosing on our economic future is not.

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.