Thursday, December 13, 2012


By Keith McDowell

I confess! I’m guilty! Of what, I’m not exactly sure, but plenty of other people are in the same boat with me. And it’s the same old and now tiring story of a Congress that doesn’t know how to get anything done.  But it comes with a new twist: it’s a story from the 1980s and it presages the completely dysfunctional Congress we now have.

The story begins with the Congressional budgeting process. Doesn’t that language have a familiar “once upon a time” ring to it? In the 1980s, Congress actually managed to pass a yearly budget, but there was a problem. It was rarely done in a timely manner and typically involved so-called “continuing resolutions” that invoked the previous year’s budget in order to get past the beginning of the Federal fiscal year on the first of October.  Important program elements were often not “technically” funded until the early spring of the next calendar year. But therein arose the problem. Program officers at Federal agencies expected work to begin on the first of October for the program elements that they assumed would be funded for that fiscal year, even though the funding wasn’t “technically” appropriated by Congress as of the first of October.

What would you have done if you were a manager like me in the 1980s at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), especially if you knew that “technically” it was “illegal” for you to expend funds from one program account on another program? Of course, program schedules had to be maintained since research cannot be done on the quick time, agency program managers had to be satisfied with progress, and salaries had to be paid. It would have made no sense whatsoever to put employees to work only on the funded programs “technically” rolled over from the previous fiscal year.

I can tell you what all the managers did at LANL and across the spectrum of national laboratories. We ignored the “technicalities” and simply moved forward with our programmatic efforts while hoping to balance the books in the end and avoid a bed and jail cell at the Leavenworth prison. Whatever one’s scruples might be about the ethically and morally right choice when faced with such a situation, it was really the only choice available to management. Fortunately, national laboratories did not keep time cards like most of the defense industry contractors, so I suppose that we were “technically” legal in what we did. But it was a helluva way to run things.

Fast forward to the present day and guess what? Nothing has changed.  In fact, it’s even worst. Now we are faced with “sequestration” as part of the fiscal cliff debate. What the heck is that, you ask? Here’s how the dictionary defines the verb “sequester.” It is an action to “remove, set apart, segregate, take possession of, confiscate, or cause to withdraw into seclusion.” Hmm, does seclusion mean that defense dollars will be taken “off budget” and hidden by smoke and mirrors from the public? Inquiring minds want to know.

Seriously folks, what “sequestration” actually means to the man on the street including those poor managers at the national laboratories is that members of Congress want to take back that which they’ve already “technically” granted or built into the current and future fiscal budgets. Yikes, I’m glad I’m now retired and no longer eligible for a bed at Leavenworth.

But “sequestration” doesn’t just affect national laboratories or defense contractors. It affects the entire innovation ecosystem of America including a severe hit on basic research at our universities, the wellspring from which innovations emerge. Think of it in terms of the following metaphor. Basic discoveries are like sperm. They float around in search of an egg to fertilize. Only a few achieve successful conception of the embryo of an idea that grows into an innovation that is born as a commercial product in the marketplace. If one neuters the process, you get nothing in return. With sequestration, we turn America into a eunuch state unable to display leadership in the global Innovation Race. It’s a form of “self castration” or better said, “secastration” – to invent a new and more appropriate word to describe what’s going on.

Secastration, like all forms of self-indulgence, is almost certain to make one blind to its outcomes. And how about all those mythical warts that one gets from such activities?

But let’s turn to the hard numbers behind the rhetoric. The 2011 Budget Control Act is the vehicle through which sequestration will occur without a resolution of the fiscal cliff. According to an email that I received from the American Physical Society, “the Department of Energy Office of Science would lose $400 million; NSF $586 million; NASA Science $417 million; and NIH, $2.52 billion. It would mean staff furloughs, a significant reduction in operating time for user facilities, and a reduction in new NSF grants by as much as one-third.” I can tell you that researchers will spend an inordinate amount of time writing grants in the hope of keeping their operations alive. Some argue that progress in innovation will be set back by over a decade.

And what’s even more troubling is that “sequestration” will occur on top of the positive impact of stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 – funding that was temporary and is scheduled to disappear. Although data related to ARRA funding is hard to extract at this early stage – there is always a several year delay in processing such data, we know that universities spent $54.9 billion on R&D in 2009 and $65.1 billion in 2011, up 6.3% from 2010. These significant increases reflect the slug of one-time ARRA stimulus funding that is currently being spent. What will happen when that goes away over the next year or two when added to sequestration?

Steve Fuller in an important report entitled The Economic Impact of the Budget Control Act of 2011 on DOD & non-DOD Agencies projects that sequestration will result in the direct loss of 31,000 jobs out of the 1,082,370 STEM workforce in America. Based on the ARRA impact and my own understanding of the situation, I suspect the real number will be larger.

It’s “secastration,” plain and simple. It’s cutting off and emasculating America’s ability to innovate by reducing funding in our R&D sector. It’s “balancing the budget” of a much poorer America in the future. And it’s self-inflicted. I choose procreation over castration. How about you?

Note: The image of the castration tool was copied from and is a product of Syrvet Inc.

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