Defense Cuts Alarm Education and Aerospace Leaders

I have good news to report.

Congress worked together to agree on  a two-year budget deal. There are people on both sides of the matter grousing a little about it. But most people see it a welcome relief to the nonsense of the last few years. It was a cooperative effort between Democrats and Republicans and goes to the Senate next for approval. I have been wondering if we would ever be able to report on such an event again—of real bipartisan effort—given the in-fighting of the past several years that only seems to worsen.

But here we are, middle of December, with members of Congress saying that they owe it to the military to give them a budget before the end of the year. This sentiment comes as sequestration looms and the cuts ax is prepared to drop where it may and slice of whatever it will.

Part of the real problem with sequestration—at least for the round already completed and the 2014 round about to happen—is that its cuts are indiscriminate. The mandated reductions in defense spending are simply leveled, without any process that attempts to prioritize or scrutinize such cuts and their long-term effect.

The Budget Control Act (the law that created the sequester) doesn’t require that future years have the same automatic cuts, provided DoD and Congress generate budgets below certain caps. If congress can cooperate, they could shift budget dollars toward R&D.  The media in Washington report that is just what the bill Congress passed does.

Educators and Industry Leaders Sound Off

Most of the concern about the consequences of the sequester have been from within the military community. Recently, highly placed officials in Education and the Aerospace community banded together to beat that drum with a new level of urgency.

Representatives from the Association of American Universities (AAU), Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and the National Association of Manufacturers joined others in a recent Washington press conference to warn that the first round of sequester cuts has already harmed US R&D. The pending second round of the automatic cuts that are part of the 2014 budget cycle could be even worse, they say.

Here’s how Wes Bush, CEO of Northrop Grumman and chairman of AIA’s board put it:  “Many assume that America’s lead in technology and therefore our technological superiority in national security is somehow guaranteed. It is not…The pace of technology advancement around the world is accelerating and it’s accelerating at a time when we’re reducing investment.”

The panel focused on the impact the sequester is having on R&D spending and by extension, talent development and retention. Reducing R&D creates what Bush called a new “talent risk” as capable potential workers avoid career fields in favor of more innovative areas.

DoD spending cuts have made their way down to universities, where 2012 marked the first time that R&D spending had declined since 1974, according to a recent National Science Foundation report, according to Hunter Rawlings, president of AAU.

“We are facing an innovation deficit as research and higher education investment declines while those of our foreign competitors dramatically increase,” he said. “This research carried out in our nation’s universities is the lifeblood of innovation, and innovation is the lifeblood of our economy.”

To illustrate his point, Rawlings pulled his Apple iPhone. “This is a great Apple product, a great product,” he said. “But none of the technological inventions that made this product possible were created by Apple. All of them came out of government-sponsored research and development.

AIA sent copies of a letter to congressional leaders and the president outlining their concerns. The letter was signed by over 100 of AIA’s member companies. Among other things it warned:

“Investment in the defense industrial base is not a spigot that can be turned on and off without consequence,” it said. “Research can take years to yield results and key skills can take a lifetime to develop. While facilities and equipment can be built and replaced relatively quickly, people and their skills cannot.”

One can only hope the congressional fiasco of late has helped Congress understand it cannot hijack the entire country for its partisan squabbles. Neither side will get all it wants. But, working together, Congress has a duty to put in place a reasonable budget and move forward, particularly in this crucial area of domestic defense.

Now, if only the US Senate will step up and pass the bill.

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