Fed­eral science fund­ing is es­sen­tial for suc­cess

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion - CON­RAD C. LAUT­EN­BACHER JR.

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.

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