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Safeguarding science from Trump

Jun 13, 2017
In The News

For decades, Chicago has had a backyard view of science at its most sublime. At Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, physicists hone our understanding of the universe by trailblazing the frontier of the subatomic. At Argonne National Laboratory, scientists probe ways to make lighter, cheaper batteries for electric cars and smartphones, and tackle global water scarcity with membranes fine enough to filter out viruses and nanoscale pollutants.

That's practical research that recognizes how finite the planet's resources are. Advancing battery technology helps ensure a reliable power source for tomorrow's driverless cars and taxi drones. How bad are the world's water troubles? Water scarcity affects at least 700 million people in 43 countries, according to the United Nations. By 2025, the number of people living in areas without enough water will rise to 1.8 billion, the U.N. projects.

It's disturbing to see where that research fits into President Donald Trump's federal spending priorities. Under Trump's proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which oversees Fermi, Argonne and eight other national laboratories, would take a $900 million budget cut. That likely would translate into a reduction of 150 to 200 jobs from Fermi's 1,700-strong workforce, says U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Plano, a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Greg Hinz at Crain's Chicago Business reports that Argonne could lose as many as 500 jobs.

Many of those Argonne employees are in the business of breakthroughs in clean energy — vital research for a world that has been pummeling its environment with fossil fuel pollution. Clean energy's not a Trump priority, though. The president has put his chips behind oil and coal. Under Trump's spending outline, the Department of Energy would face a 70 percent cutback in funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy research, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

If Trump can't see how science can safeguard our future, Congress should. Just how much of Trump's vision for spending is actually realized is up to Congress — more often than not, its spending plan veers considerably from a president's budget wish list. When lawmakers start debating spending priorities, cutting-edge research at places like Fermi and Argonne should be championed.

It helps that the Illinois delegation has its share of strong advocates for Fermi and Argonne, including Hultgren and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Geneva, a physicist who worked for decades at Fermi. Foster was one of 13 Democratic lawmakers from Illinois who signed a letter to Energy Department Secretary Rick Perry last month warning that Trump's proposed budget "would cause permanent damage to our research infrastructure and force our national labs to lay off critical scientific staff."

"This is no way to keep America great or maintain our position as a leader in science and innovation," the letter read.

Well said. Trump's renewed push for fossil fuels is shortsighted and wrongheaded. Coal jobs aren't going to make a comeback. Oil's on borrowed time — the supply isn't endless, and we should be bracing for a future without it. Clean energy is key to that future. That's where we should put our focus—and that means funding the science that will make it happen.