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Another victim of the Congressional game of “chicken”: American science

by Donald Prothero, Oct 23 2013


I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.

—John Adams

Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.

—Mark Twain

Over the past three weeks, we got to see an extraordinary demonstration of Kabuki theater: politicians posturing and speechifying and saying silly and downright seditious things, all to placate their voter “base” that believes the idiocy they spew. I won’t dwell on the details, but anyone who remembers their “Schoolhouse Rock” realizes that  the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is already the law of the land: passed by both Houses of Congress in 2010, signed by the President, and upheld by the Supreme Court last year, it cannot be changed unless its opponents capture majorities in both Houses of Congress and the Presidency. Since Obama campaigned on the ACA in 2012, and Romney campaigned against it, and Obama won the presidency by over 5 million votes (and the GOP lost seats in both Houses of Congress), it is clear that the “repeal” of the ACA was rejected by the voters as well. Surely most of the members of Congress, who are typically lawyers and took constitutional law, know this. Instead, we get this farce about “defunding Obamacare.” Never mind that the GOP doesn’t have the votes to do this; never mind the fact that most of the ACA is already in place, or going into effect the day the stalemate started with a stampede of people signing up to join it; never mind  that much of the spending is mandatory and cannot be changed by Congress. As Igor Volsky pointed out:

“Inter-party squabbling aside, defunding Obamacare in the continuing resolution would only target the parts of the law that are subject to annual appropriations. The pillars of reform — Medicaid expansion, the subsidies used to buy insurance — are exempt from this process and are funded through so-called “mandatory” spending and have permanent funding authority. The Department of Health and Human Services, the agency tasked with implementing reform, also “has the ability to fund related provisions without seeking additional appropriations from Congress.”

Given that they’re trying to close the barn door after the horses have run off, either the ACA opponents in Congress display an appalling level of ignorance of the basic functions of their jobs, or they are cynically playing the sheep that follow them with empty promises they know they cannot fulfill. Either way, the entire game of chicken came to an end after 16 disastrous days, when the anger of the American public at the closure of their government finally forced the GOP to cave with nothing to show for it but historically low poll numbers. Meanwhile, $24 billion was wasted with all the side effects of the government shutdown, and the damaging effects on the economy are still not tabulated.

I won’t discuss  all the sad and terrible things that resulted from the shutdown, but the list is long, from women and children who could not obtain baby formula, to dead servicemen returning from Afghanistan who were delayed or prevented from getting their full military honors in the funeral, to many other unforeseen consequences of the lack of thought behind the whole stalemate. I have dozens of friends working for the Smithsonian, the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, the BLM, and many other Federal agencies, and their research came to an abrupt stop—as well as the impact on their lives for those in lower pay grades, just barely able to survive even when their paycheck DOES arrive on time.
Since this is a blog about science and skepticism, I will focus on what profound damage that the sequester and then the government shutdown did to American science. In a nutshell, it was catastrophic. Science projects are largely operations that require continuous uninterrupted funding, or their equipment goes dead, their lab animals die, their experiments are ruined, and carefully planned research that may take years to set up can be wiped out. For example, Robert E. Marc, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, writes about the sequester:

Like many other investigators, we’ve been seriously wounded by sequestration. Many neighboring labs have let people go. I have riffed one postdoctoral fellow and euthanized many beautiful, rare and expensive transgenic rabbits that were new, exciting models for testing new therapies for human retinal degenerations. We petted them, played with them, fed them treats. Now they are dead. I blame Congress directly for that. …the sequester’s cost is tremendously understated as no one is counting the destroyed investments. I’ve spent over $25,000 developing a colony of animals who have a progressive age dependent blindness. Because of the sequester we’ve killed them before we could finish the treatment study. We saved about $4000 from this year’s budget. We thus wasted 5x more money than the sequester saved. When and if Congress ever does anything again, it will be years before we get our new blindness treatment study back on line. If it doesn’t get better soon, I’ll retire early and then 15 people will be unemployed.

Funding at the NSF and the NIH is so bad that scientists are being laid off all over the country, and about 20% are considering quitting and taking their talent to other countries that have unwavering support for science, creating a giant brain drain.

Meanwhile, lobby groups like Research!America share concerns about a scientific brain drain from the US. ‘China is aggressively wooing Chinese nationals who have trained in the US by offering very generous funding,’ says Mary Woolley, the organisation’s president and CEO. ‘Other nations that are attractive to US scientists now include those whose governments have committed to science, even in a time of general economic austerity: the United Kingdom, Singapore, Sweden and Australia.’

As many have pointed out, the hamstringing of research funding in American science has a huge effect on the technological benefits that come from basic, “pure” scientific research.

Of course, Apple and its competitors created this new industry. But the technologies that make smart phones and tablets possible came from discoveries made through federally funded research. According to one analysis by Research Trends, the technologies used in LCD screens, lithium-ion batteries, digital hard drive storage and Internet protocols – all critical to these success of these devices – were enabled by key research discoveries funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Departments of Energy and Defense. None of this research was carried out with a smartphone or tablet in mind. It is simply not possible to say in advance where fundamental research will lead – but without the research, revolutions like this one won’t happen.

Even sadder is how many long-term experiments have been destroyed or seriously compromised by being shut down for 16 days, or being squeezed by the sequester. The Mars rovers stopped running. Untold numbers of lab animals died because researchers were locked out of their labs and could not tend to them. The entire U.S. Antarctic research effort was shut down, and scientists (and especially graduate students) who’d been waiting years for their brief window of opportunity to collect data during the short Antarctic summer had their research canceled or put on indefinite hold–and it’s too late to restart these experiments for most of them, even though the stalemate lasted only 16 days. As Benjamin Miller of NOAA pointed out:

For instance at NOAA, Miller says that the budget cuts have forced the agency to close several long-term sampling sites used to monitor greenhouse gases and other chemicals in the atmosphere that contribute to climate change and ozone depletion. That is creating gaps in the data, which the agency uses to create models, Miller notes. “It’s like introducing a blind spot where you had vision at one time.

The effects are felt in many other ways, such as enforcement of wildlife protection. As Dan Ashe of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) pointed out:

The federal budget sequestration is limiting our law-enforcement capability at the very time we need it most. Our Office of Law Enforcement already has 63 vacant positions for special agents—the men and women on the front lines of preventing wildlife crime. With sequestration, FWS had to cancel plans to hire a class of 24 officers to begin filling these jobs. As a result, we will be able to carry out fewer investigations of wildlife trafficking, and we may have to postpone plans to station agents overseas in countries that are either suppliers of or markets for elephant ivory, rhino horn and other contraband.

Most serious of all is the effects it has on training the future generations of American scientists. As astronomer Adam Frank writes:

The people who are getting hurt by the budgetary quakes that rumble through Congress are students and young scientists. When I apply for a research grant the bulk of the money goes to training tomorrow’s researchers. These grants pay for 20-year-old undergraduates assisting in data analysis. They fund 26-year-old graduate students completing the exhaustive training needed to earn a Ph.D. in physics. They give 30-year-old post-doctoral researchers the opportunity to hone their craft as they take the final step toward becoming fully independent scientists. If we keep on this path, it’s the next generation of American scientists that will be lost. In science, you don’t get to skip a generation. The reality of science and technology is that you can’t teach it out of a cookbook. It’s a set of practices, behaviors, ethics, attitudes and approaches that are learned through apprenticeship. That’s why it takes so many years of training. Every scientist learns his or her craft from another scientist, a mentor. It’s a link in a chain that goes back many generations, with each scientist connected to both the past and the future of this vital cultural endeavor. As I enter my “midcareer” phase, I realize the most important part of my job now is to pass this craft of scientific research on to the generation ahead of me. This practical reality should cut across all lines of political debate. Developing the next generation of military satellite communications and surveillance systems, for example, requires a continuous pipeline of physicists and engineers. The ability to accurately understand changes in the Earth’s climate system over the coming decades requires the same pipeline. The life-saving medical advances of tomorrow will not come from U.S. laboratories unless similar pipelines exist in genetics and bioengineering. You can’t just restart that pipeline once it really fails. The excellence that was part of your tradition fades with the aging of the older generation. Expertise is lost, experience in specific methods you still need is nowhere to be found. The best students from across the world stop applying to your schools and begin traveling to those countries where vigorous scientific research is still supported. When it comes to the U.S. effort in science, which is and has been exceptional, this is what we are risking. If we do lose it, if we let the pipeline fail, the excellence we have now will not easily be regained.

The budget stalemate may be over for now—although the GOP is promising to do it all over again in January and February when the budget and debt ceiling come up for another authorization vote. But the meat axe cuts due to the sequester are still in effect, and the once-dominant scientific edifice that the U.S. built so painstakingly after World War II is being slashed and gutted, ruining the careers of both scientists and their most promising students, and sending some of our best talent overseas. Given how much our society depends on these scientific advances, it is a serious problem that we cannot afford to ignore. As Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society pointed out:

If you want a high-tech work force, if you want science that drives the economy, this is what you need to do. If you don’t, the country will suffer. We will not be innovative. We will not be building a better America. And that is what we’re looking at.


15 Responses to “Another victim of the Congressional game of “chicken”: American science”

  1. Max says:

    As Andrew McCarthy pointed out

    The [Supreme Court] justices held the “Affordable” Care Act unconstitutional as Obama presented it to the American people: namely, as a legitimate exercise of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce…
    We now know Obamacare was tax legislation. Consequently, it was undeniably a “bill for raising revenue,” for which the Constitution mandates compliance with the Origination Clause (Art. I, Sec. 7). The Clause requires that tax bills must originate in the House of Representatives. Obamacare did not.

    But I’m with you on sequestration. I warned last year that it will screw medical research.
    Don’t remember you or other skeptics warning about it.

  2. Steve says:

    A group of baboons is called a troop, not a Congress.

    • Old Rockin' Dave says:

      In addition, I don’t think any baboons live in snowy areas.
      Baboons are catching a bad rep from this canard – dominant male baboons have been seen sacrificing themselves to save the troop from predators. I haven’t seen any of the Tea-liban putting anything on the line for their country lately.

  3. atav1st says:

    Politicians need only look at what happened to European science during and after WWII. We never >>really<< recovered from that brain drain.

  4. Trimegistus says:

    So Obama and the Democrats cripple the country’s finances with vast new expenditures and out-of-control borrowing . . . but somehow it’s the Republicans’ fault that there isn’t any cash left over for research.

    I’m awestruck, Mr. Prothero. You can apparently take any situation or phenomenon — wind, rain, leftover tuna going bad because you left it out on the counter — and find a way to make it all the fault of those EEVIL Republicans.

    Don’t you ever get tired of saying the same things over and over, in the service of a party filled with corrupt hacks who neither know nor care one iota about you? Is your identity as a Good And Smart Liberal so fundamental to your sense of self that you must constantly lash out at your imaginary enemies?

    Get a life. Oh, and how about doing some blog posts about skeptical topics?

    • MikeB says:

      Awwww, poopy diaper?

    • tony duncan says:

      One can certainly argue that there has been uncontrolled borrowing, although, what uncontrolled means is obviously subjective.
      Clearly Obama has not crippled the country’s finances. the economy, while not in very good shape is functioning
      and of course arguing that “there is no cash for research is ridiculous, you just accused Obama of uncontrolled borrowing. some of that must be for supporting science research. You can’t have it both ways. The only people that stopped the research he describes is Republican’s who shut down parts of the government, which is exactly what he wrote.

      I don’t see anything else in your comment that has any rational component, so no need to reply to that.

  5. Loren Petrich says:

    Trimegistus, it was the *Republicans* who decided on the shutdown, so they and only they have the blame.

    Can you describe to us what “vast new expenditures” and “out-of-control borrowing” the Obama Administration has been guilty of? Mainstream sources if at all possible.

    Here’s some interesting data. The New Yorker magazine published maps of the distribution of the “suicide caucus”, the House Republicans who pushed for the shutdown, and the “survival caucus”, the House Republicans who voted to end it. The “suicide caucus” was distributed across the contiguous 48, while the “survival caucus” was distributed across the contiguous 48, with one notable exception: the ex-Confederacy. The survival caucus was *much* more sparse there.

    What a disgusting bunch of sore losers. They lost the Civil War, they lost the civil-rights struggle, and now they want to drag down the country.

    • tmac57 says:

      Loren- I live in the heart of the Tea Party/dead-enders/Civil War loser lamenters,and I find it distressing that even some of what I would have previously though of as middle of the road to liberal acquaintances of mine have increasingly fallen for the demagoguery of the extreme right.
      Facts have become relative.The mainstream sources of information have become so weak that the ‘extremestream’ sources have filled in the gap,thus having a ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ effect as far as having an anchor of reality on which to bolster rational arguments to fight the nonsense.
      The populace down here are quick to find the easy answer of scapegoating,and regurgitating right wing talking points,despite the repeated errors and outright lies that they are caught in.
      It just doesn’t seem to matter. When people trust their ‘guts’ and prejudice more than they respect the facts,I fear that we are moving toward a more dangerous,belligerent,and (most alarmingly) armed segment of society,whose motto is “Take our Country Back!!!”
      I always wonder:
      “From whom?”
      “For whom?”
      “What exactly does that mean?”
      “Is that what all the vast stocking of arms an ammunition is all about?”

    • Jerrold Alpern says:


      A) In fact, government expenditures and debt have decreased sharply under Obama, so “vast new expenditures and out-of-control spending” are a lie. The data is from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and other objective sources.

      B) The sequester, the government shutdown and the threat to default were all Republican strategies. This is documented through Republican words and sources. The damage done to science is the fault of the Republicans, not the Democrats.

      C) Ad hominem arguments are unacceptable on scientific blog sites. “Ad hominem” means attacking the man instead of the message, which you have just done.

      D) Yes, excess rain is one result of global warming. Warm air holds more moisture than cold air, leading to more violent deluges. The Republican denial of global warming prevents us from doing anything about this.

      • Tom says:


        You are ridiculously uninformed. Please note that I mean that in the least ad hominem way possible.

  6. Loren Petrich says:

    Sorry for the repeat. I misspelled my e-mail address.

    Here’s some interesting data. The New Yorker magazine has published maps of the distribution of the “suicide caucus”, the House Republicans who pushed for the shutdown, and the “survival caucus”, the House Republicans who voted to end it. The “suicide caucus” was distributed across the contiguous 48, while the “survival caucus” was also distributed across the contiguous 48, with one notable exception: the ex-Confederacy. The survival caucus was *much* more sparse there.

    That says something about certain ex-Confederacy politicians, and it’s NOT very pretty.

  7. A Bear says:

    I thought a group of baboons was called a pharyngula.

  8. Max says:

    Obama flatly told Romney in the final debate that the sequester “will not happen.”
    And yet…
    “While Obama stated the cuts will not happen, the cuts are the law and will take effect Jan. 2 unless Congress passes a new law. Obama himself has threatened to veto any law that doesn’t replace sequestration with alternate deficit reduction.”

    The idea of the sequester came from the White House.
    “The solution came from White House National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, who, on July 12, 2011, proposed a compulsory trigger that would go into effect if another agreement was not made on tax increases and/or budget cuts equal to or greater than the debt ceiling increase by a future date.”
    Congress agreed to it and passed it, and Obama signed it into law.

  9. JoeD says:

    Oh boy, I can’t wait until we’re all told what cars to buy, what food to buy, have a populace of more than 50% who live off the backs of everyone else and have bent over the table skeptics telling us that it’s ok because it’s the “law of the land”. It’s a shame the blacks didn’t shut the hell up when slavery was the “law of the land”, eh, Donald?