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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Mapping The Effects Of The Sequester On Science

Mar 1, 2013
Originally published on March 1, 2013 1:03 pm



As I just mentioned, the automatic spending cuts go into effect today, covering much of the federal budget, and we were trying to talk with Lamar Smith about where those cuts might come, obviously across the board. Well, someone who might be more forthcoming or know more about it is here with us, Michael Lubell. He is professor of physics at City College at the City University of New York, director of public affairs at the American Physical Society. He's here in our New York Studio. Good to see you again.

MICHAEL LUBELL: Good to see you, Ira.

FLATOW: Any thoughts on what's going to happen?

LUBELL: Well, let me just first correct the statement that Chairman Smith made. He said it was a 2.3 percent reduction, that's true for the entire federal budget, but two-thirds of that budget is Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And when you look at what we call the discretionary budget, it is more like five to eight percent, in some cases even a little bit higher.

And one of the difficulties that we face in science is that it's not like a road project, you say well, we don't have the money to continue paving something today, we'll call the crew off and bring them back six months or nine months from now. Science, you cut it, the people aren't coming back, the facilities aren't going to be opened again. It's a pretty sad state that we're heading for.

FLATOW: Off the top of your head, what's going to get the biggest whack if nothing changes?

LUBELL: Well, the legislation is very specific. It says you have to take everything down by the same amount. There's very little latitude that the administration in any of the science agencies have. They just have to use the meat-axe approach and take everything down. It's one of the worst things you can do in policy. This is driven by politics, and it's - God help us.

FLATOW: NIH Director Francis Collins said that the directors of the institutes - the different ones, there are a lot of them - inside NIH could decide how to apportion the reduction within their institute, and they'll likely reduce every grant payout to meet the targets.

LUBELL: That's pretty much, I think, what's going to happen in most of the agencies. In some cases it's not just grants. The Department of Energy runs major facilities. You're going to have the same kind of approach there. There'll be furloughs, so some facilities maybe shut, shuttered completely and never to open again.

And this is - we are a high-tech country, and...

FLATOW: And we run national labs. We have...

LUBELL: We run national labs. That's absolutely correct.

FLATOW: We don't hear much or know much about them, Battelle, other ones, things like that.

LUBELL: Well, the Department of Energy, right here on Long Island, Brookhaven National Laboratory is one example. They run a number of facilities that are used by scientists all over the country. Illinois there are two. California has two very large ones. And you can go around the country, you will find them.

It's not that the people who do the work there live there. Most of them live elsewhere and come and use those facilities, because they're just too big and too expensive for any university or any industry to maintain.

FLATOW: Do you think the public will know about these?

LUBELL: No. This is the problem. What is going to - I think of this as - I'll take, instead of a frog, I'll talk about a goose in a pond of water, and we're slowly heating it up, and eventually the goose gets cooked. And by the time it gets cooked, it's a little bit too late to deal with it. That's what's going to happen to us. Unfortunately the public doesn't see it immediately, and I think the president probably made a mistake in trying to steer people, because you're not going to see it, at least, for several months, if then.

It's just going to be a very slow erosion, and in the case of science, as I said, that erosion is not something that you repair easily.

FLATOW: Because people leave.

LUBELL: People leave, facilities shut - and any new projects that are underway will be stopped.

FLATOW: And as far as science education, too.

LUBELL: Science education exactly the same thing. Money that we put into education grants, all that's going to be cut. And this is at a time when the rest of the world, particularly Asia, is ramping up. And we've already seen what happens when some of the powers there really devote themselves to things. This is not a good track for us to be on.

FLATOW: So while the president or people in the administration talk about well, you're going to have longer lines at the airports, you're going to have - they don't talk about the other kinds of things, in the science world and technology and leadership and those fields.

LUBELL: It is - that's correct. And in fact I would argue that the more devastating effects are the long-term effects. If you have a longer line at the airport today, put money back in there, those lines will get shorter. If we remove the money from our investment - and let me just make a couple comments about this. I mean, half of the economic growth since the end of World War II was attributable to science and technology.

One fact that people don't usually know is that laser-enabled technologies account for one-third of our economy today, and they began with a small amount of government money more than 50 years ago.

FLATOW: That's the kind of research you're talking about.

LUBELL: Yeah, that's it.

FLATOW: All right, Dr. Lubell, thank you very much for taking time to be with us. Michael Lubell, stay with us, we're going to go take our break and come back, professor physics at the City College of the City University of New York. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, if you want to talk with Dr. Lubell. He'll stick around; we'll take some questions. And we'll talk about what you think. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY; I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about funding for science and the sequester, those automatic federal budget cuts that go into effect today. My guest is Dr. Michael Lubell, director of public affairs at the American Physical Society, talking - the major point, I guess that you made before we went to the break was that once money gets shut off, some of these projects are shut down.

LUBELL: They shut down forever.

FLATOW: It's not like people come back. It's what they used to talk about in the space program. You know, you can't bring the rocket scientists back. They've gone on. They're gone away. They've gone to do other things.

LUBELL: People are smart. They find other things to do. And hard to attract them back, absolutely correct.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can go to the phones, get a call in here. Let's go to Bruce(ph) in Phoenix. Hi Bruce.

BRUCE: Hi, how's it going?

FLATOW: Fine, how are you?

BRUCE: Doing good. I work in traumatic brain injury, we actually are working on two different trials right now for traumatic brain injury. And both of those projects, there's no way you can cut out a small portion of that. It's either do it all, or do none of it. And that's my concern is as the speaker suggested, if we are not funded, we'll have to stop what we're doing, and it won't ever be re-funded.

FLATOW: So you're actively working on that research now?

BRUCE: Correct, been underway - those projects take years to go through the scientific validation process and then the funding process. And then they get ramped-up, and we're right now waiting for our next year's funding, and we're very nervous that if it gets cut, we will just not be able to continue doing what we're doing.

FLATOW: Oh, so you're depending on from one year to the next for the funding to continue what you're doing?

BRUCE: Correct. They adjust it every year.

FLATOW: And so if you run out of that funding, you have to just close up shop, there's nothing to hold you over?

BRUCE: Well, if they cease funding, we will absolutely close up shop. But the problem is if they cut funding, we are right at the bone right now. We don't have any extra that we can just say well, let's get rid of part of this project because every part is interdependent. And if we shut down one part, we will shut down the entire study.

FLATOW: Michael Lubell?

LUBELL: Well, let me make one other point. I think what you said is you find in many, many laboratories around the country. Another point I would make, though, is that science in general is done in a very efficient way. There is very little waste. And scientists themselves tend to be fairly frugal people. And everybody's always looking for a way to save a few pennies.

And so you're - you know, what you're saying is the same thing I've seen in my laboratories: You cut a small amount, you're really cutting into the bone.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling, Bruce.

BRUCE: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Wait and see what happens.

BRUCE: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: And you were saying before that, even though that people in government are talking about between two and three percent of a budget that - tell me why it's higher. Explain that again.

LUBELL: The federal budget has two components. One of them is what we call mandatory spending. The public understands that from Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and there are a number of other programs. For the most part these are not affected by the cuts. There's a small amount of money in Medicare that will be taken out.

It's the balance of the budget, and that represents one-third of total spending will be hit with all the cuts. So while Chairman Smith was right, overall it's 2.3 percent, one-third of the budget gets hit by it means it's going to be over six percent, seven percent.

FLATOW: And I guess the hopeful news is that they could reverse the sequestration any time they wanted to if they wanted to.

LUBELL: If they - well, it's a question not only if they want to, if they can find the political will to do it.

FLATOW: All right, Dr. Lubell, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. Michael Lubell is professor of physics at City College of the City University of New York, director of public affairs at the American Physical Society right there in New York, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.