Higgs boson

Budget cuts leave US science lagging

As a student of science, I'm thrilled that scientists at CERN, Europe's particle-physics lab, have proved the existence of the Higgs boson and advanced our understanding of the Universe. But as an American, I'm somewhat saddened. Had congressional budget-cutters been less short-sighted two decades ago, the Higgs boson might have been discovered by a US-led team instead of by a European consortium. On 4 July, no less.

In 1993, Congress cancelled funding for the Superconducting Super Collider near Waxahachie, Texas, after sinking US$2 billion into an 87-kilometre particle accelerator that promised to establish the United States as the leader in physics research. Two years later, funding was approved by CERN to build the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland.

US science is facing a growing threat from a well-funded anti-science movement, abetted by those corporations and politicians opposed to any research that conflicts with their own vested interests.

Apathy towards basic research in the United States is coupled with an increasing reluctance to invest in science projects that do not have a foreseeable pay-off. But let's not forget that the pioneers of quantum mechanics in the 1900s — Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger — were unable to offer any practical ideas about commercial uses for the subatomic particles, quarks and leptons they were bringing to light at the time. However, if you are reading this on a computer, tablet or smart phone, you have quantum mechanics to thank.

An estimated 30–35% of today's US gross domestic product is based on inventions derived from quantum theory, from semiconductors in computer chips and lasers in compact-disc players to magnetic resonance imaging in hospitals and much more.

If it doesn't want to fall behind, the United States should be following the lead of other nations that are investing in science and technology to benefit their economies.

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Correspondence to William J. Richards.

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Richards, W. Budget cuts leave US science lagging. Nature 488, 32 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/488032a

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