While calling for $2 billion in additional energy research spending Friday, President Obama warned at the Argonne National Laboratory just outside of Chicago that the sequester cuts could cause the United States to fall behind in research and development in the energy sector.
"Dr. Isaacs, [Argonne's director], said these cuts will force him to stop any new project that's coming down the line," Obama said at the lab in Lemont, Ill. "And I'm quoting him now. He says: 'This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions of … dollars in missed future opportunities.'
"Essentially, because of this sequester, we're looking at two years where we don't start new research," Obama said. "And at a time when … every month you got to replace your smartphone because something new's come up, imagine what that means when China and Germany and Japan are all continuing to plump up their basic research and we're just sitting there doing nothing.
"We can't afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races forward," he added. "We have to seize these opportunities. I want the next, great, job-creating breakthroughs, whether it's in energy or nanotechnology or, you know, bioengineering. I want those breakthroughs to be right here in the United States of America, creating American jobs and maintaining our technological lead."
Obama spent the week reaching out to Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill as he tried to find a way to avert a potential budget showdown at the end of the month and alleviate the impact of the sequester.
"These cuts will harm, not help, our economy," he said. "They aren't the smart way to cut our deficits, and that's why I'm reaching out to Republicans and Democrats to come together around a balanced approach - a smart, phased-in approach to deficit reduction that includes smart spending cuts, and entitlement reforms, and new revenue, and that won't hurt our middle class or slow economic growth."
But while the president warned about the impact of the sequester, he also joked about the sequester to standing observers.
"Those of you who have chairs … [I] wasn't sure everybody had chairs there, please feel free to sit down," the president said. "Everybody was standing. I thought Argonne, you know, one of the effects of the sequester, you had to get rid of chairs. That's good. I'm glad we got some chairs here."
Matthew Howard, a spokesman for the Argonne National Laboratory, said the lab is bracing for a 5 percent cut because the sequester amounting to between $30 million and $35 million.
"Our main concern is that sequester will hurt us in the long term," he told reporters prior to the speech. "It will really devastate American science while the rest of this world is racing forward. We will be frozen. … Excitement about the new projects will be cut off."
Standing in front of three new, energy-efficient vehicles, President Obama called for Congress to establish a new energy security trust, an initiative that would dedicate $2 billion over the next 10 years to support research in "cost-effective technologies" to decrease dependence on oil.
"This is not a Democratic idea or a Republican idea. This is just a smart idea," the president said. "Let's set up an energy security trust that helps us free our families and our businesses from painful spikes in gas once and for all. Let's do that. We can do it. We've done it before, innovated here at Argonne."
Prior to his speech, the president toured the research facilities at Argonne, where he saw a Chrysler test engine and a thermal test chamber, an experience he joked about with his daughters.
"I told my girls that I was going to go into a thermal test chamber and they were pretty excited," Obama said. "I told them I'd come out looking like the Hulk. They didn't believe that."