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GOP Budget Torches America’s ‘Seed Corn’

Tea party torch carriers and the Republican leaders who won’t stand up to them are threatening to burn America’s seed corn. It’s simple-minded madness.

The seed corn is federally funded basic scientific research that produces the discoveries and trains the scientists that eventually create millions of skilled jobs.

But heedless of the consequences, the House Republicans’ fiscal 2011 spending bill, H.R. 1, slashes funding for federal scientific research and agencies by as much as 33 percent, threatening to furlough thousands of top scientists, stop their work and force corporations using them to conduct their projects overseas.

This at a time when report after blue-ribbon, business-backed report has warned that the United States is falling seriously behind its competitors in investment in research and science education.

It’s bad enough that the GOP is trying to restore its frayed reputation for fiscal responsibility by hacking at domestic discretionary spending — about 16 percent of the federal budget — but it’s taking a meat ax to research, which amounts to about 0.04 percent of all spending but pays huge long-run dividends.

Specifically, the bill calls for an $886 million cut for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science — an 18 percent reduction from 2010 levels but 33 percent if applied to the seven months remaining in the fiscal year.

Republicans evidently intend to thwart climate control research, but the Office of Science also oversees America’s seven national laboratories, which do some of America’s most advanced work in nuclear physics, super-computers, new-materials science and nanotechnology.

The bill effectively defunds the newest U.S. research project, the Advanced Research Projects Agency -Energy, which is dedicated to finding the 21st-century equivalent of lasers and the Internet, discovered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Whether or not Republicans believe that global warming is a real threat, their actions will torpedo research designed to make U.S. energy use more efficient — even facilitating cheaper oil refining — to limit use of imported energy.

H.R. 1 also cuts the National Science Foundation — the source of funding for most “hard science” university research — by nearly 9 percent for the rest of the year, and it clobbers its program for training math and science teachers by 28 percent.

It would also cut the National Institute of Standards and Technology by 19 percent, curtailing contracts for research in cybersecurity, “smart grids” for electricity transmission and health information technology.

The GOP also proposes a 5 percent cut from 2010 levels for the National Institutes of Health at a time when the agency is mounting an effort to cross the “valley of death” between basic biomedical discoveries and products that pharmaceutical companies will develop and sell to the world.

Republican priorities represent not just a repudiation of President Barack Obama’s proposed increases for science — 10 percent for energy, 13 percent for the NSF, 15 percent for NIST — but of a bipartisan process started in 2005 to secure a doubling of hard science research.

That year, Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and then-Reps. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) asked the National Academy of Sciences to study what the U.S. had to do scientifically to keep up with international competition.

The result was a report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” by a commission led by retired Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman Augustine declaring that America would “lose our privileged position” without significant increases in research  investment and education performance.

“While only four percent of the nation’s workforce is composed of scientists and engineers,” the report said, “this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent.”

It cited federally backed research that decoded the human genome, leading to biotechnology breakthroughs, and integrated circuits and GPS, leading to computers, cell phones, iPods, CT scans and electronic books.

Responding to the report, in 2007 Congress passed but didn’t fund the America COMPETES Act, authorizing a doubling of hard science research.

A reauthorization passed last year after the Augustine commission updated its 2005 report and said that the “gathering storm” was “approaching Category 5,” with the U.S. ranking 27th among developed nations in the percentage of college students receiving degrees in science and engineering.

Another stunning factoid in the report: According to ACT tests, 78 percent of high school graduates were not prepared for entry-level college courses in math, science, reading or English.

At the moment, Obama gets the need to invest in education and research. House Republicans don’t.

For former Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), this is “déjà vu all over again.” In 1995, the then-new GOP majority proposed a five-year, 25 percent cut in NIH funding.

Porter invited five pharmaceutical company CEOs and five Nobel laureates to visit then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who got the point and helped Porter, NIH’s chief appropriator, increase the agency’s budget.

The question this year is: Who’s Newt? Who’s John Porter? Somebody has got to save America’s seed corn from a mindless mob. So far, it’s not the Republican leadership.

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