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Unwise retreat in funding research
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 3/22/2008 11:58 PM

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We turn the key in the ignition, and the car starts up.

When our rooms grow dark, we flip the switch, and the lights go on. When we want to relax, we turn on our TV sets, and hundreds of channels are available for our entertainment.

We take all this for granted, never thinking about how these amenities came to be.

It all started with research. A man or woman found support for development of a great idea, and it evolved into something useful for society. Innovations that have made our lives easier, more enjoyable. Innovations that have broadened our access to information. Innovations that can lead to much more, including finally breaking us free of our dangerous reliance on foreign oil.

Yet, Washington regards research as something that can be diminished in value in the interest of fiscal discipline. This unfortunate point of view is reflected in funding cuts at the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia. It has forced the layoffs of 200 Fermilab employees -- and is a setback for the continuation of cutting edge research.

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a Hinsdale Republican, has enlisted the help of scientists in making an appeal to Congress to not only restore funding at Fermilab, but also to assure Argonne National Laboratory near Darien and other federal research facilities don't fall under the budget ax.

Earlier this month, the Science-Engineering-Technology Working Group appealed to members of Congress to continue strong support of research.

"Solutions to many of our greatest concerns -- concerns about health care, national security, about climate change, to name a few -- are awaiting discovery in research laboratories around the country," said Russell Lefevre on behalf of the group "But if we upend our country's 50-year tradition of federal support for research, those solutions will remain undiscovered."

And Illinois would suffer.

The Alliance for Science & Technology Research in America reports that 205,702 people in Illinois are employed in the high technology sector. Many of these jobs are in the suburbs.

And three suburban congressional districts -- the 8th District represented by Melissa Bean, the 9th District represented by Jan Schakowsky and the 13th District represented by Biggert -- are home to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research and development contracts.

Perhaps there are those in Congress who view research as a nebulous intellectual exercise without value outside of the laboratories. That's simply not true. An estimated 73 percent of all patents granted in the U.S. are attributable to scientific research initially funded by taxpayers through the federal government, according to the research alliance.

And every federal research dollar that is cut just puts us behind the rest of the world in technological innovation. There are better ways to rein in spending than to discourage Yankee ingenuity that has served us so well.