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House Science Cuts Don’t Make the Cut

House Moves to Cut Vital Research While Protecting Tax Subsidies for Corporate Jets

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The U.S. House of Representatives will vote this week on an appropriations package to fund several key parts of the government. Unfortunately, the appropriations committee that drafted the package left a few important parts out.

The Commerce/Justice/Science, or CSJ, and Transportation/Housing and Urban Development, or THUD, appropriations bills would keep the federal government running through December 16, 2011, but at the same time would kill or hamstring a number of small, humble, yet vital federal programs.

The bill as currently formed would have a negative impact first and foremost on jobs. It would also inhibit critical agricultural and industrial science research, food safety monitoring systems, science education, healthy food access in schools, violence prevention programs, drug trafficking enforcement, rural innovation and economic development, coastal development, and efficient, low-carbon urban transit systems.

While reducing the public deficit is no doubt an important priority in the long run, doing it through ill-conceived short-term cuts to low-cost, high-importance science programs would cause more harm than good, hampering economic growth, job creation, public safety, science education, technology innovation, and rural economic development. A quick look at what specifically the bill would cut is illustrative.

Cuts undermine public safety and crime-fighting

The house cuts would completely eliminate a key program, the Technology Innovation Program at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, or NIST, which drives innovation in public good technologies. The Technology Innovation Program funds scientific research and development to improve our ability to monitor the condition and integrity of civil infrastructure such as bridges, highways, dams, levees, and wastewater treatment systems.

The cuts would also help illicit drug traffickers by cutting funding to three key programs that help police departments across the country develop and use technology to take down increasingly sophisticated nationwide drug cartels. The bill would cut the COPS technology program, which provides grant funding for the development and utilization of new technologies to advance communications interoperability, information sharing, crime analysis, intelligence gathering, and crime prevention. Similarly, the $34 million in cuts to the Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center would hamper the ability of local law enforcement in different precincts to coordinate in taking down dangerous drug traffickers.

Cuts hamper food safety and take away healthy options

The proposed cuts would also do serious damage to the nation’s ability to respond to major food safety crises by completely eliminating the Microbiological Data Program. This small but vital $4.2 million program is charged with inspecting and analyzing produce like tomatoes, spinach, and peanuts for harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella. On top of that, the House bill would cut virtually the entire budget for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which helps fight food deserts—communities without access to healthy groceries—and the obesity epidemic by expanding the availability of nutritious foods in underserved communities.

Cuts slow rural innovation and entrepreneurship

The proposed cuts would hamstring innovation in agricultural communities. The New Era Rural Technology Program—which helps advance agriculture-related technology innovation and has already improved crop-storage efficiency in Oregon and trained students in Iowa in sustainable farming—would be cut entirely. The bill also cuts $38 million in funding and closes 12 federal agricultural research laboratories in 10 locations. These labs do for agricultural research, food safety, nutrition, and sustainable farming methods what the national labs do for atomic physics and energy technology. These cuts will have unforeseen consequences not only for the state of agricultural innovation but also the employment of the more than 2,000 highly skilled scientists employed by the Agricultural Research Service.

The bill also heralds cuts to programs that help smalltime entrepreneurs start new business in rural regions where the recession is hitting hardest. Cutting the $6 million Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program will make it harder for nonprofit and educational institutions in rural regions to provide small loans to get small technology-based entrepreneurs to get new businesses off the ground.

Cuts damage science and education, the engines of future innovation

And beyond agricultural research, the House cuts will also have deleterious effects on science and technology education and innovation across the board. Science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, education is what trains workers to compete for jobs in the increasingly knowledge-driven global economy. But  $36 million in cuts to the NSF Graduate STEM Fellowships in K-12 Education program wll deprive children around the country of the opportunity to get hands on learning from real experts in STEM fields. And  $10 million in proposed cuts to the NSF National STEM Education Distributed Learning program will diminish the changes of students born without privilege to find opportunities to pursue careers in science and engineering.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem to agree that there is an urgency to attract more students to STEM jobs in order to improve our economic competitiveness. Casting aside these important initiatives  is bad for students, bad for science, bad of businesses who–despite the recession–still cannot fill STEM job openings, and bad for the economy.

Cuts make our communities and oceans less sustainable

Unsurprisingly, oceans and the environment will get the short end of the stick with the proposed funding cuts. Cutting funding for the TIGGER Grants will slow research into making transportation and infrastructure more efficient, functional, and environmentally friendly, and destroy the high-value research jobs that go with it. And forget sustainable energy for the poor—cuts to the EDA’s sustainable development programs will ensure communities in need are not equipped to cope with climate change.

Our coastlines will also have to do without, as cuts to the Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning program reduce the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ability to develop ways to protect coastal ocean resources in a way that harmonizes competing economic, environmental, security needs. If the goal of the GOP truly is to get government out of the way and allow businesses to rebuild the economy, cutting funding for coastal and marine spatial planning is completely counterintuitive. As a fundamental component of America’s National Ocean Policy, this program reduces permitting times for offshore industrial activities where appropriate by better coordinating and streamlining federal review of activities on our outer continental shelf, thereby using taxpayer dollars more efficiently. Cutting it would hamper not only efforts to protect the ocean but also the many industries—from fishing to offshore wind—that depend on it.

But there’s another option

Instead of cutting so many modest yet vital investments in our long-term economic wellbeing, the House Appropriations Committee might instead consider eliminating some longstanding corporate welfare programs that only help the richest 1 percent of Americans. As the figure shows, eliminating just one tax loophole that allows corporations to deduct the costs of their private jets for CEO travel on their tax returns would bring in about the same amount of deficit reduction as all of the science and public safety cuts combined. That’s right; under the House appropriations bill, American taxpayers will spend $4.6 billion over the next 10 years to subsidize corporate travel on private jets, while cutting the same amount in job-creating public safety, environmental, and agricultural technology innovation research programs.

Reducing the deficit is undoubtedly an important long-term priority. But so is continuing to make smart investments in science that help us develop and commercialize new technologies, maintain public safety, protect our environment, and create new business opportunities and new jobs. We cannot think of these programs as “spending.” Each one represents an investment with future returns. As the president said in his State of the Union address at the beginning of this year:

Gutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.

We cannot, even in our haste to solve the debt crisis, resort to shortsighted solutions that compromise our position as a leader in innovation in the global economy. Even less advisable is acquiescing to pressures by compromising on our national health and safety.  There is a better way; it is attainable through thoughtful reflection and discourse. Lawmakers cannot be so cowardly as to take the easy way out at the expense of the 99 percent, while asking nothing of corporate jet owners.

Sean Pool is the Assistant Editor of Science Progress. Lauren Simenauer is an intern with Science Progress and a senior at the University of Virginia. Thanks to Matt Kasper, Patrick Garofalo, and Seth Hanlon for their input and ideas.

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