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Science On Shaky Ground As Automatic Budget Cutbacks Drag On

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At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scientists use a powerful computer known as Titan to simulate everything from the inner workings of a nuclear reactor to the complicated effects of climate change on human populations — on a global scale. Until recently, Titan was the most powerful supercomputer on the planet, but now there's a new No. 1.

"The new machine is called Tianhe-2 and it's actually at the National Defense University in China," says Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge.

Titan's slip from the top spot is not unusual: Nations regularly swap the No. 1 slot. But because of a series of automatic spending cuts locked into the Federal government's budget, Mason is afraid America may soon slip permanently behind.

"The issue is not so much who's No. 1 in the horse race," he says. "But we think it's important for the U.S. to always be amongst that group that is pushing the envelope."

The automatic cuts were never supposed to happen. Back in 2011, Congress passed them as a threat: If government spending wasn't brought under control by 2013 through tax increases or a more tailored set of cutbacks, these general, across-the-board cuts would go into effect. Democrats and Republicans could never reach a deal. So this spring, the cuts came in.

Everyone from preschool teachers to fighter pilots had to tighten their belts. Oak Ridge saw its budget slashed by about 7 percent in 2013 — that's nearly $100 million.

But while the lab's budget is down, its electric bill isn't. All told, Oak Ridge's machines suck up as much juice as a small town, 25 megawatts: "For every megawatt of power we use a year, it costs us about a million dollars, and that's real, cold hard cash," says Jeff Nichols, the lab's associate director for computing.

Nichols says that the lab changed pension plans and reduced benefits to make up for some of the cuts. But money will also have to come from plans for the future. Researchers had hoped to replace Titan with another superfast machine in 2017.

"As we look at the budget scenarios we're facing, that next machine is moving further and further out into the future," Mason says.

The automatic cuts are also hurting the researchers who use Titan, like Sally Ellingson, a graduate student at the University of Tennessee. She's currently teaching Titan to screen chemical compounds that could be used as drugs to treat diseases. "Recently I ran a job where I tested over 4 million compounds in just a couple hours," she says.

Ellingson is set to graduate next year, and she's already writing a grant that will allow her to continue her research.

But grant agencies like the National Institutes of Health have suffered budget cuts too. NIH says that it is funding hundreds fewer proposals than in previous years. And the approval rate for grant applications submitted to NIH was already down to 18 percent from around 30 percent in 2000, even before the automatic cuts. The National Science Foundation, another major funder, says it's only funding roughly 1 in 5 of the proposals it receives.

"It's very, very tough when you're young to get any funding at all for what you're doing. Even if you're very brilliant, such as Sally [Ellingson]," says Jeremy Smith, the head of Ellingson's supercomputing group. He sits on peer-review panels that approve government grants. These days, he says, the panels get way more proposals than they can fund.

"At least two or three of those proposals that get rejected are fantastic science," Smith says.

He says he's worried that the climate could force Ellingson out of research. "She'll have no problem getting a job, but the risk has increased now that [the job she gets] will not be inventing the new medicines and products that will drive the economy in the future," Smith says.

For now, it seems like the cuts are here to stay. To stop the automatic budget declines, Congress would have to find ways to cut the deficit, either through different cuts or by the introduction of new taxes, or both. Against the backdrop of mammoth, trillion-dollar budget battles, science is likely to get lost, warns lab director Mason. "It's easy to miss something that's a pretty small part of the federal budget," he says.

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