Federal science funding is essential for success
I’ll never forget the first time science made a personal, life-altering impact on me. It happened in 1968, when I was a young Naval officer with a newly minted Ph.D. in applied mathematics.
The Navy decided I was a perfect fit to serve as navigator on a destroyer off the coast of North Vietnam. It was my first deployment at sea, and suddenly I was in charge of keeping our ship and sailors safe whether in open ocean sailing or under enemy fire.
There were no fancy navigational tools back then, just the knowledge of spherical trigonometry, a sextant and a thick book of tables, so my scientific training was vital. We fared well, and science hasn’t failed me since.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is proposing cuts to federal research that is critical to our health, national security and way of life. The cuts would devastate programs in many agencies. We need help from Congress to hold the line.
Why should we be concerned? I could devote pages to the details, but it boils down to this: Without scientific research, there is no discovery, no progress, no ability for us to benefit from new innovations and defend ourselves against natural and man-made threats.
Imagine your life without electricity, clean water, reliable transportation, medications and your cell phone. All of these life staples were made possible by federal investments in science, and we need science to keep producing innovations that fuel our economy and sustain our prosperity.
Why are federal dollars essential to basic scientific research? Because commercial support isn’t enough. Most investors aren’t keen on bankrolling an idea that doesn’t offer a quick pay off. It takes federal investment to nourish exploration and innovation at laboratories where financial success is not the governing principle.
In addition, the administration’s proposed cuts come at a time when many countries — including China, Russia and South Korea — are increasing their investments in scientific research, recognizing that it will be a key foundation of 21st Century economic growth and global competitiveness. Without sustained commitment, the United States risks stalling our world-leading innovation engine, putting the well-being of future generations in peril.
I’ve been fascinated with science since my boyhood in Philadelphia, when my elementary school teacher demonstrated inertia to the class using coins. That’s the one where you place a stack of quarters atop a playing card, and, if you pull the card out fast and smooth enough, the quarters stay put. It was and still is a pretty neat trick.
I realize not everyone is into science. But science benefits all of us, and we need science to make our nation thrive.
The next time you call on your cell phone, pick up antibiotics for a nasty bug, or simply flip on an electric light, remember — it’s science we need to thank.
Retired Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. was administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 2001 to 2008 under President George Bush. His 40 years of naval service include serving as commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Riyadh during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, commander, U.S. Third Fleet, and deputy chief of naval operations.