With Budget Cuts Looming, Is Science A Lame Duck?

If Congress fails to act, some $15 billion will be cut from science funding in January 2013. Physics professor and Beltway insider Michael Lubell talks about how science can escape that "fiscal cliff," and what to expect for climate change, healthcare and space under four more years of President Obama.


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman, filling in for Ira Flatow this week. Early Wednesday morning, when President Obama reaccepted the job, he said...


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We want our children to live in America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.


LICHTMAN: The destructive power of a warming planet. But is President Obama prepared to tackle climate in his second term? How about the space program? Are we still sending humans to an asteroid? And health care, will Obamacare kick in as scheduled? What will science policy look like in the next four years, and more immediately, how much science will take the plunge if we head over that dreaded fiscal cliff?

Fifteen billion dollars in budget cuts for science next year if Congress fails to act by January. What will that mean for research and for researchers? Science after the election, that's what we're talking about this hour. So give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. You can tweet us @scifri.

Now let me introduce my guest. Michael Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York. He's also the director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, and he's here with us today in our New York studios. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MICHAEL LUBELL: Thank you very much.

LICHTMAN: So what's at stake for science with the fiscal cliff? Let's start there.

LUBELL: Well, what's at stake for science is also what is at stake for the nation. If the - we go off the fiscal cliff, and I'm not sure that's the right term for it, but if we go off the fiscal slope, several things are going to happen. Number one, the economy is likely to contract. That means that federal revenues will decline, and that means there'll be less money available to spend on a variety of programs, including science.

And more particularly, we're facing something called sequestration, and that is what you referred to when you said $15 billion will be coming out of the science budgets, and that is absolutely correct. The effects of that will be felt in a variety of ways. We'll be doing a lot less research. The National Science Foundation, in fact, will lose the capacity to fund almost one-third of the kinds of proposals it receives in any given year.

And facilities at the Department of Energy will also be forced to curtail operations. We will be heading into a dark age.

LICHTMAN: That's scary. Have you heard from researchers or university presidents? Are people worried about this in the scientific community?

LUBELL: One of the most amazing things is scientists tend to be very optimistic. And I'm sometimes the gloom-and-doom guy, but I would say many people simply have not been following what goes on in Washington. It's an amazing situation. I speak in many different places, many universities, and people, their eyes open up, their jaws drop, and they say, is that what's really happening? And I say, well, if you read a little bit of the newspaper, and you follow some of the news, you might discover that we are facing a serious problem.

LICHTMAN: I mean, the fiscal cliff was in the news today. I think moments ago, minutes ago, President Obama made an announcement. Are we any closer to averting it?

LUBELL: Well, you know, we've been stymied by politics for the last four years or at least two of the four years, and the dynamics may change in January. On the other hand, some of the realities are still with us. The Senate is somewhat more Democratic, with the election of two new members, who'll be up 55 out of the 100.

The House is going to remain Republican, and although Democrats picked up a few seats, the dynamics are largely unchanged in both chambers. And so unless there's a real wakeup call for the leaders, I think we've got a problem.

LICHTMAN: Well, I mean, you know, with Chris Christie sort of acknowledging that climate change is a problem, do you think that - are you starting to see a shift, people coming together on this issue, or do you think that's more wishful thinking?

LUBELL: That's a very interesting question. Chris Christie and of course Mayor Bloomberg both spoke out. It's also interesting that Jeff Flake, who won his senatorial election in Arizona and is a real fiscal conservative, Republican member of the - new Republican member of the Senate, is somebody who believes climate change is a serious issue.

Whether he will be able to - since he's a very conservative member, whether he's going to be able to lead some of his colleagues in the same direction remains to be seen, but without question Sandy was a wakeup call. Also we had the hottest summer on record. July was the hottest month. We have had droughts that we haven't seen for more than half a century, and the weather is getting a little weird. So perhaps people will wake up and say, you know, we ought to take a closer look at this.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I mean, this becomes a question of security.

LUBELL: Absolutely. It's all kinds of security. We have naval bases that are exposed. We have infrastructure of all kinds. We saw what happened with Wall Street closing down for 48 hours for the first time I think since - I can't remember, it's over a century. And that's the financial heart of our nation, and these are the sorts of things that we can't really tolerate very well. And so resilience is a piece of the equation that we have to deal with in addition to looking more carefully at the science.

LICHTMAN: Do you get the sense that Obama is prioritizing climate change in this second term? I've heard him mention it more, I think, recently, including in the clip we just heard.

LUBELL: Well, it's been a toxic issue for him, and what - we saw what happened in the first six months of his presidency, where he actually went out on a limb on this and actually forced a number of the House Democrats to walk out on the limb with him, and that limb snapped.

So I think he's going to be a little bit cautious in how he approaches this. I would suggest that what he really needs to do is to enlist the support of people like Jeff Flake and a few others in the Republican Party to try to make this a bipartisan issue rather than a Democratic issue.

LICHTMAN: The number of physicists in Congress doubled, from one to two. Should we be celebrating this fact?

LUBELL: Well, the number went up, and a couple years ago it went down. We used to have three. We were down to one, now we're back up to two. Bill Foster won election. He had won once before and lost to Randy Hultgren last time around. So yeah, we got two, and I think we need more.

LICHTMAN: What about the space program? What should we expect to see there?

LUBELL: That's one of the most difficult ones, because it is an extremely expensive program, and quite frankly over the last dozen years, NASA has not done itself a great deal of good in the way it has put together its strategic plan. So I think we're going to have to wait and see on that. Perhaps if NASA gets its act better together, we'll get a real direction that we need.

LICHTMAN: I mean, we've heard something about the asteroid as a destination. Is that changing? Is that a moving target?

LUBELL: Everything in Washington is a moving target.

LICHTMAN: Good point.

LUBELL: Perhaps not as fast as an asteroid, but it's there.

LICHTMAN: Let's go to the phones. Tevla(ph) from Flushing, New York, hi, you're on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Do you have a question?

TEVLA: Yes, I have a question for the gentleman. Obama was promising to hire 100,000 science and math teachers, but my question is we have to go back and see where our science education, especially in high school, goes wrong. I mean, we have to learn from our curriculum, maybe see how other countries are doing it. We have huge universities here, and we have to find out a way how to make science and math very interesting for our young kids so that problems like climate change can only be tackled if you have enough educated manpower.

So the basics is science and math is still we are lagging behind, and we have to find a solution for that in order to tackle any problems, including environment.

LICHTMAN: Thank you for your comment. What about that, science education? What's the state of that?

LUBELL: Very serious issue. I mean, just as the gentleman pointed out, we have a very leaky pipeline. And we can go back to the early education issues. When we look in high school, though, and I'll take physics as a good example, when we look at high school physics teachers, it's actually less than one-third of them have had physics education.

So they're teaching students starting off with their own deficiencies. This is not the way to educate a scientifically literate electorate of the future.

LICHTMAN: Well, let's talk about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, as even the administration now refers to it. Is that safe from being dismantled? Do you think it'll kick in as scheduled?

LUBELL: As long as the president is in the White House, he's not going to sign a bill that abolishes it, and nor will the Senate go along with it. There are a couple of interesting things about that, that legislation, and that is many of the benefits really don't become apparent to the public until 2014. And so a lot of the criticism that we've seen, although I have to say that Governor Romney pointed out that there were certain features of that legislation that he liked, he liked the issue that you could not be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition.

He liked the, sort of the extension of COBRA to 26 years and so forth. I think as these things kick in, the public becomes more knowledgeable about it, we'll have probably a better informed debate, and then we'll see where it goes.

LICHTMAN: Has the Obama administration favored any certain types of research over the last four years, and would you expect this to continue going forward?

LUBELL: There's always a split between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to research. Both parties historically have been supportive of science. The Democrats tend to favor things in more technologically based things that have a payoff in the near term. And Republicans take the approach that that's the kind of thing that industry ought to do, and you shouldn't - they call that picking winners and losers, but I think people in the - who do science policy as I do, we regard applied research as just as important. It is what we call the valley of death because nobody really wants to do it.

LICHTMAN: The valley of death, really?

LUBELL: The valley of death. We do a great job with discovery, and that's the long-term early-stage research, and industry does an outstanding job with taking discoveries that have already gone through the applied process, where they have things that they can package, they do the development, and they market, and they do a great job with that, but nobody really pays close attention to the applied research that can have a time horizon of 10 years. And that's what we call the valley of death.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, thank you so much for joining us today.

LUBELL: It's my pleasure.

LICHTMAN: Michael Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York. He's also the director of public affairs for the American Physical Society.

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