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Sequestration ‘cuts into the muscle’ of research, Obama warns

President Obama has reiterated his warning that the budget cuts across all government agencies, known as the sequestration, will harm the economy by reducing federal support for vital scientific research.

Speaking during a visit to the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) near Chicago, Illinois on 15 March, the president criticised the automatic budget reductions triggered on 1 March for failing to distinguish between wasteful programmes and vital investments.

“They don’t trim the fat; they cut into muscle and into bone—like the R&D being done right here that not only gives a great place for young researchers to come and ply their trade, but also ends up creating all kinds of spin-offs that create good jobs and good wages,” he said.

Scientific research is what enables the US to maintain its competitive edge globally, Obama said, noting that the director of ANL, Eric Isaacs, had said the sequestration cuts would force him to stop any new projects. Obama went on to say that the sequestration means there will be two years in which “we don’t start new research”.

The president also repeated a call, made last month during his State of the Union address for Congress, to set up an Energy Security Trust to fund research into alternative energy technologies. The proposed fund would aim to prevent spikes in gas prices by investing in research to develop cars and trucks that run on electricity or home-grown fuels.

Over 10 years, the Energy Security Trust would provide $2 billion for critical, cutting-edge research focused on developing cost-effective transport alternatives. That money would come from revenues from federal oil and gas development: the Obama administration has said it will not add any additional costs to the federal budget.

Two prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill immediately criticised Obama’s renewed call for the Energy Security Trust. The chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas, said the proposal “adds billions more to the deficit” and does not address the nation’s energy challenges.

“The president wants more money to fund more pet projects, but it is clear that his administration has not been responsible with the taxpayer dollars that have already been spent,” Smith said. Much of this spending is “duplicative and wasteful”, he added, emphasising that government agency spending must be better prioritised. “Federal dollars should be focused on R&D, not picking winners and losers, which is a role better left to the private sector,” the lawmaker said.

Republican Cynthia Lummis from Wyoming, who is chairwoman of the Smith committee’s energy subcommittee, was also displeased. She cited findings from a recent Institute for Energy Research report, which concluded that opening new areas for land-based and offshore energy production could yield the federal government an additional $24 billion a year.

“It is extremely disappointing that the President’s proposal—which clearly recognises the revenue potential of these vast resources—does not intend to open up any new lands to expanded production,” Lummis said.