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In this 2010 photo, Berkeley Lab researchers work on a 40-terawatt laser that could help blaze a trail for a new breed of particle accelerator.
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updated 11/25/2012 6:54:22 PM ET 2012-11-25T23:54:22

The American science programs that landed the first man on the moon, found cures for deadly diseases and bred crops that feed the world now face the possibility of becoming relics in the story of human progress.

American scientific research and development stands to lose thousands of jobs and face a starvation diet of reduced funding if politicians fail to compromise and halt the United States' march towards the fiscal cliff's sequestration of federal funds.

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NEWS: What's the Fiscal Cliff?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 1,082,370 U.S. citizens employed in the life sciences, such as biology and genetics, as well as physical and social sciences. Of these, approximately 31,000 stand to lose their jobs if sequestration takes place, according to a study conducted for the Aerospace Industries Association by Steve Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis and professor of public policy at George Mason University.

These potential job losses represent approximately 3 percent of the total life, physical and social science jobs in the United States.

The possible $56.7 billion cut to the the Department of Defense (DOD) budget may result in 14,982 lost science jobs out of a total 325,693 lost, or 4.6 percent of the total DOD jobs cut, according to Fuller's report. Reducing the budgets of other agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, by $59 billion could result in 15,980 science jobs lost, or 3.8 percent of the 420,529 total non-DOD jobs destroyed.

Unfortunately, the loss of research and development jobs is only the tip of the unemployment iceberg the fiscal cliff could create if scientific progress loses funding.

"The 31,000 figure does not include the indirect job losses, such as subcontractors, suppliers and vendors, or the induced job impacts," Fuller told Discovery News. "Induced jobs are those supported by employee's spending on goods and services, so these are unlikely to be STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) type jobs but rather retail, consumer services, education and health, construction and those types of occupations.

"The direct jobs are clearly the immediate losses and encompass most of the STEM-type jobs," said Fuller. "There will be some subcontractor job losses, including some STEM type jobs. For DOD contracts in general, subcontractor jobs are about 26 percent of the total where the direct jobs are about 30 percent. The remaining job losses, 44 percent, are induced."

NEWS: Fiscal Cliff: Just the Facts

Job losses would be spread across the nation, but certain states would be hit harder than others. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) calculated that California would lose the most research and development funding, with a $11.3 million loss. Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts and Washington D.C. rounded out the list of top five biggest losers.

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"We won't really know where the job losses will be until they happen," said Matthew Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, "but it will probably be most acute in those states with the most knowledge-intensive workforces, since most of these are substantial performers of federally funded science."

"Not only would research itself suffer, but the cutbacks would likely have ripple effects into the future, as young scientists and science students would have fewer opportunities," said Hourihan. "So the immediate and direct job losses don't really tell the full story, because you'll also have fewer opportunities for new jobs."

The job losses from the fiscal cliff would be tragic enough by themselves, but the loss would also set America further behind other nations in the race towards scientific and technological leadership. The nation which led the race to the moon could find itself looking up to nations it once left Earthbound.

"Sequestration would be dropping an anchor on the science enterprise, while many others are setting their sails," said Hourihan. "As an example, here are some factoids derived from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data: since 1999, the US has increased the research intensity of its economy by 10 percent. Over the same period, research intensity in Israel, Finland, and Germany have grown about twice as fast. In Taiwan, it's grown five times as fast. In South Korea, it's grown six times as fast. In China, the number two funder behind us, it's grown ten times as fast."

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Although he notes it is impossible to put an exact time line on how far back the fiscal cliff's sequestration would set back American science, Hourihan suggests agencies like the National Institute of Health could be set back by a decade or more.

A scarcity of federal research dollars means organizations will have to say no to more promising research. A report by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) presented figures stating that the National Science Foundation could lose $586 million, which would result in the grant proposal success rate dropping from 22 percent to 16 percent. The National Institutes of Health would likely fund 700 fewer grants as a result of a $2.5 billion cut, which would represent a drop in the proposal success rate from 19 to 14 percent.

"This means that researchers start spending more time writing grants to keep their labs running and their lab personnel employed," said Robert Gropp, director of public policy at the AIBS. "In essence, they start doing less science — there time is going to preserving funding. This can certainly slow scientific progress."

Gropp noted that the sequestration cuts would come on top of cuts that some agencies have been taking for a number of years. Funding for the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, has been essentially flat for a number of years. So, another deep cut is going to have a significant impact on the agency.

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New science may be delayed because of the importance of sustaining data monitoring for existing programs, said Gropp. Like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, it will take all the running scientists can do just to stay in place monitoring the data coming in from existing programs. Cutting funding hamstrings scientists ability to run even faster and move forward.

"I think the federal agencies and the congressional appropriators have worked hard to carefully evaluate scientific research programs," said Gropp. "I think they have made the cuts to programs that were underperforming or of lower priority. I am not sure that there is much more that can be cut without very real and long-term negative ramifications."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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