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updated: 3/15/2013 10:18 PM

At Argonne, Obama warns federal cuts will hurt research

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  • Video: Obama at Argonne Natl Lab

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  • President Barack Obama greets employees and scientists as he gets ready to speak at Argonne National Laboratory on Friday.

      President Barack Obama greets employees and scientists as he gets ready to speak at Argonne National Laboratory on Friday.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • President Barack Obama speaks to scientists and employees at Argonne National Laboratory on Friday.

      President Barack Obama speaks to scientists and employees at Argonne National Laboratory on Friday.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Karena Chapman, of Naperville, a chemist at Argonne National Laboratory, waits for President Barack Obama to speaks on Friday.

      Karena Chapman, of Naperville, a chemist at Argonne National Laboratory, waits for President Barack Obama to speaks on Friday.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

The impact of the federal sequester heavily influenced President Barack Obama's speech to scientists at Argonne National Laboratory Friday afternoon, as he painted a bleak picture of American research being outpaced if funding dries up.

"In a time where every month you've got to replace your smartphone, imagine what that means when China, Germany and Japan are pumping up basic research and we're just sitting there doing nothing," he said.

Obama stressed the importance of American innovation -- and the necessity of government grants -- as he announced he will call on Congress to establish an Energy Security Trust to shift American cars and trucks off oil and toward homegrown fuels.

The price tag is $2 billion in government funding over the next 10 years, but U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, one of a number of Illinois officials at the event in Lemont, said that would be supplemented by outside funding. "It's not going to be 100 percent government investment," Durbin said.

The idea, which Obama said was modeled after a plan developed by a group of business and military leaders, was first floated during the president's State of the Union address to Congress last month, but details were provided for the first time Friday. According to the White House, the trust would fund research at universities, laboratories and private companies.

"By investing in our energy security, we are helping our businesses succeed and we're creating good middle-class jobs right here in America," Obama said. "The only way to really break this cycle of spiking oil prices ... is to shift our cars entirely, our cars and trucks, off oil."

The president's proposal, however, is being met with skepticism from some GOP lawmakers, who have called for expanding offshore drilling.

While some Republican critics -- including former Congressman Joe Walsh of McHenry -- have argued against government funding for research labs such as Argonne, the president and others in the scientific community stressed that investment is vital.

Matthew Howard, Argonne's director of communications, says the lab is anticipating a 5 percent reduction in federal funding due to sequestration cuts, which amounts to about $30 million to $35 million.

"We're opposed to these cuts because they don't distinguish from wasteful programs and vital investments," Obama said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Naperville Democrat and longtime scientist at Fermilab just outside Batavia, said he had conducted radio frequency experiments at Argonne years ago.

Citing a "two-year dead stop in all new research," he said sequestration cuts could be demoralizing to young scientists.

"We don't have specifics on how that's going to play out," Howard said. "We just don't know what the short-term effects will be from the Department of Energy, but our main concern is the freezing of new ideas and the slowing down of new projects while the rest of the world is racing ahead. There is a long-term effect that could really damage science in this country and innovation."

A few hundred of Argonne's employees were chosen to attend the event, including chemist Karena Chapman of Naperville, who has worked at the lab since 2005. Chapman, who studies battery life in high-capacity batteries, said she hopes the president's visit works to give Argonne a higher national profile.

"A lot of what we're doing is really important for energy, the environment, and nuclear systems," she said. Before speaking, the president, who was accompanied by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, toured several stations at the laboratory's Advanced Powertrain Research facility -- each involving improving how cars use energy. He joked with the crowd that he told his daughters that after going into Argonne's thermal test chamber, he would emerge looking like "The Hulk."

The president said he chose Argonne because few areas hold more promise for how we create American energy.

"The only way to break this cycle of rising gas prices is to fund research into new technologies to help us reach that goal," Obama said.

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