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Why Mustn’t We Let Fundamental Science Fall Off the Cliff? Ask Siri.

Siri SOURCE: Reuters Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces Siri, the virtual assistant. What he didn't mention: The technology behind Siri, and the iPhone 5, was made possible by decades of publicly funded particle physics research.

This December we find ourselves squarely between two American national pastimes: the annual holiday shopping blitz to procure the latest Apple product—in this case, the iPhone 5—and the seemingly perennial political wrangling to avert what the media portrays as fiscal Armageddon in Washington. What do these two have to do with one another? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

If you have been following the fiscal cliff news, you probably know that at the root of the debate are dueling arguments about economic growth. But did you know that the iPhone 5 alone is projected to contribute between 0.25 percent and 0.5 percent to the annualized growth of our entire national economy just in the last three months of 2012? It’s true, according to JPMorgan Chase chief U.S. economist Michael Feroli.

The iPhone 5 is just one particularly good example of a larger reality: Technology innovation is an indispensable part of our country’s economic growth. History tells us that while the private sector plays a critical role, public investments in science are at the core of our prosperity. When we cut our investments in science, medicine, and technology, the economy suffers.

To be sure, the iPhone 5 is surely not the result of the genius of the U.S. government. Apple deserves plenty of credit, sure. But the parallel processing, integrated circuits, and digital communications protocols that make it possible to fit more computing power in your pocket than all of Mission Control during the Apollo 11 moon mission came from government investments in science and technology.

A lot of it also came from an area of research near and dear to my heart: particle physics. Take, for example, the parallel processing that Apple employs that enables you to simultaneously talk to Siri while drafting a text or email message, playing music, and uploading pictures (but not while driving your car, please). While the Defense Department recently has been credited with developing some of the artificial intelligence software baked into Siri, the roots of the iPhone go back even further.

This technology was made possible partly due to particle accelerators at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab in the 1970s and ‘80s. Physicists there needed to analyze results from huge numbers of high-speed particle collisions occurring many times per second, but computers at the time lacked the capability to do it. As usual, the mother of all necessity led the physicists and engineers to link a large number of smaller, cheaper computers together to process the data in tandem, which gave rise to “parallel processing” and supercomputing.

In the 1980s, particle physicists again found that the need to store, catalog, and retrieve the vast amounts of data being generated by their experiments on individual computers outstripped the technology. What did they do? They used networking advances made possible by the federally sponsored research out of the Advanced Research Projects Agency and built a distributed system they called, in all humility, the “World Wide Web.” Try downloading the latest version of Angry Birds without it.

The fact that my examples come from the world of particle physics is just by chance, as it happens to be my profession. My point is that without the direct and collateral discoveries arising from national investments in science (all science, any science, not just particle physics!), we wouldn’t have the iPhone 5—or the thousands of other technologies being developed and sold every day. Our economy would be considerably smaller. One Nobel Laureate in economics, Robert Solow even said that more than half of our economic growth since the 1940s is attributable to technology.

The negotiations occurring in Washington will have wide-ranging impacts on many aspects of our economy and the future size of government. But as we evaluate areas where spending can be reduced, I think it’s not only fair but also necessary that we ask our representatives whether they understand both the direct, as well as the collateral, benefits of science.

Troubling to me is that both parties agreed in 2011 to the “sequestration” plan in the first place. These cuts, if they are not averted, will drain $538 million from the National Science Foundation’s funding of basic research in 2013 alone. This would be equivalent to wiping out almost half of the entire NSF  budget for physics research or to defunding 13 of the top 50 American research university programs entirely.

Basic research in the fundamental sciences is not only a smart thing for us to be supporting, it’s also critical to our future prosperity. As stewards of our resources, I cannot think of a better thing to keep in mind.

As the great American entertainer George Burns once said, “Look to the future, because that is where you’ll spend the rest of your life.” Let’s hope our elected representatives take his advice as they face the fiscal cliff.

Drew Baden is a professor and the chair of the Physics Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. The opinions expressed here are his alone and not those of the University of Maryland.

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