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Physics and Politics

The scientific and political communities in this state and country often live in largely separate worlds. Former Congressman Vernon Ehlers, a physicist from Grand Rapids and a classy gentleman, was one of the few who managed to bridge that gap.

Smart scientists know that they usually don’t want to focus political attention on what they are doing. Smart politicians, a somewhat rarer breed, know enough to mostly leave scientists alone.

But there was a development yesterday that united both Michigan’s scientists and politicians in concern.

Four years ago, there was great rejoicing at the news that Michigan State University had been chosen as the site for the new national Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, which is expected to enable scientists to make new, cutting-edge advances in understanding subatomic particles, with potential long-term applications in everything from human medicine to space exploration.

MSU has been getting ready for the start of construction ever since. The lab would cost the government a little more than six hundred million dollars, which sounds like a lot, but is less than half the cost of one Stealth fighter plane. Additionally, the lab was expected to create jobs and give a permanent boost to our prestige.

But yesterday, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu came to Detroit and strongly hinted that the project was in jeopardy.

“We have to be careful,” about starting too many new things, he said, adding that when the project was approved in the waning days of the Bush Administration, quote, “we did not anticipate the depth of the recession, (and) the budget issues.”

If this was a trial balloon, it went over like lead. The Energy Secretary’s words threw Michigan’s U.S. Senators, both Democrats, into something like a tizzy. Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin, one of that body’s most powerful members, said “it would be unconscionable if the federal government failed to live up to its commitments in meeting this critical national priority.” Debbie Stabenow, who is facing a tough reelection fight, noted that the state and the university have already begun investing in the new facility, adding, “it would be absolutely unacceptable if the rug was pulled out from under them now.” She is right, of course. This project is no “bridge to nowhere” but a spaceship, of sorts, to knowledge and, conceivably, a better and more prosperous future for mankind.

But this crisis is also a real test of Michigan’s clout in Washington and with the Obama Administration. We are about to find out what Levin and Stabenow are made of. Between them, they have forty-five years in the Senate. They are both Democrats and this is a Democratic Administration. Put baldly, if they can’t make sure this funding happens, what good are they?

This is also a political test for the President. Obama won Michigan by close to a million votes last time, but this election isn’t going to be as easy.  Republicans can win the White House without Michigan; Democrats can’t. He knows this.

Canceling a project like this to save money is something Jimmy Carter might have done. Guess what happened to him when he ran for reelection. The Energy Secretary needs to be told to quickly reaffirm that the Rare Isotope Facility is in fact a priority.

Everybody involved really deserves no less.

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