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Short-sighted cuts to science

This Jan. 14, 2014 file photo shows Daniel

This Jan. 14, 2014 file photo shows Daniel Bennett quarantined in an isolation unit at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., during research for a better flu vaccine. Credit: AP

Ever wonder whether the dyes used in tinted windows that generate solar energy could be made more efficient?

Or whether a particular protein could help heal skin wounds from burns and cancers?

Or whether a low-cost ceramic composite could replace expensive toxic crystals to improve an infrared laser that could be used to detect diseases earlier?

Probably not.

But Archana Verma, Emily Peterson and Nathaniel Lee did.

They’re scientists, and they’re 17 years old. And they all just won scholarships from the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search, the one formerly sponsored by Westinghouse and Intel.

These competitions are an annual marvel. The depth and breadth of research is stunning, the implications promising. Not every path leads to advancement, but to move forward you have to start walking.

Lee’s laser discovery is in clinical trial, and he has a track record. He co-founded a startup that produces cellphone apps.

Lee and Verma are from Jericho High School. Peterson attends Smithtown High School East. A few months ago, it was fellow 17-year-old Alice Wu in the spotlight. Wu, from Half Hollow Hills High School West, was part of a team that reached the finals of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology for research on the use of stem cells to regenerate teeth.

Who woulda thunk it?

Verma, Peterson and Lee were honored last week in the nation’s capital. But one day later, Washington gave their work and dreams a hard slap of reality as word leaked out about President Donald Trump’s initial budget and its proposed cuts to science and research.

They are, shall we say, seismic.

The National Institutes of Health would lose almost $6 billion, about 20 percent of its budget. NIH biomedical researchers discovered the role of fluoride in preventing tooth decay, developed vaccines against hepatitis, and figured out how lithium can be used to treat bipolar disorder.

Department of Energy cuts total almost 18 percent, with big chunks coming from programs studying biofuels, energy efficiency and renewable energy — like cutting-edge battery research being done at Brookhaven National Laboratory. That is critical because the nation’s transition to alternative energy will require more efficient storage of energy.

The budget also proposes to slash research across several departments on climate change, clean energy, oceans and coasts, and earth science, all of which are vital to Long Island.

And let’s remember that government research led to the internet and federal funding supported the two Stanford University Ph.D. students who founded Google.

No doubt there’s lots of waste in lots of government programs. But excising it requires careful analysis, the kind good scientists do. This isn’t that. And, yes, this administration wants to upend conventions but you ought to have a good reason for doing so, and none has been given for the cuts yet.

We have political leaders who seem immune to science and allergic to facts — especially politically inconvenient ones. Research is a powerful corrective, and a threat.

But forget the political landscape. What about the very act of research, the commitment of time and energy and brainpower to the pursuit of information and understanding and breakthroughs? Expanding the frontiers of knowledge is part of the human condition. We thirst to know more. We expand the base of what we know, then we adapt. If not, we die.

Long Island, like many regions of the country, is pinning its economic hopes on turning high-tech research into successful businesses and jobs. That could work.

But that means placing bets on Archana and Nathaniel and Emily and Alice, not killing their dreams.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.