In one of the more bizarre yet less publicized proposed cuts in the 2012 Obama budget, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Centers are on the chopping block.  Bizarre, because the move is directly counter to Obama’s push on innovation and education as drivers of economic growth.

The Education and Research Centers (ERCs, previously called Educational Resource Centers) were originally established in the mid-1970’s, in direct response to the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act mandate to

“conduct, directly or by grants and contracts, education programs to provide an adequate supply of qualified personnel to carry out the purposes of this Act”

The aim was to support academic institutions in developing interdisciplinary occupational health and safety training programs that ensured health and safety professionals had the best possible training.

There are currently 17 ERCs in the US, each of them equipping occupational health professionals with a unique skill-set to support safe and effective business practices.  In the academic year 2009-2010, there were 689 graduate students enrolled in ERCs, of which, 423 (61%) were supported by NIOSH.  Over the same period 287 graduated from ERC training programs. Of those, 234 (82%) entered occupational safety and health careers or more advanced occupational safety and health training.

Without a doubt, this $24 million per year program hits way above its weight in ensuring US businesses remain competitive and sustainable.  And it does this by leveraging other resources, and by ensuring businesses do not making costly and unnecessary mistakes when it comes to health and safety.

But more than this, the ERCs have an essential role in ensuring US health and safety professionals are up to speed on the latest knowledge and tools for ensuring safe and effective work practices in an increasingly complex world.

Let’s face it – we’re no longer living in the 1900’s, where businesses could gamble on worker safety (and sometimes get away with it in the short term) and many safe working practices were grounded in common sense.  Today’s successful modern business demands highly skilled personnel to ensure safety contributes to success, and to ensure that enterprises don’t fail because someone was foolish enough to think safety doesn’t matter.

And no-where is this more apparent than at the cutting edge of technology innovation.

Technology innovation is critical to the US economy.  Yet if we’ve learned anything in recent times, it’s that if cutting edge innovation is to lead to jobs and economic growth, it has to be accompanied by cutting edge approaches to ensuring its safe development and use.  Technologies such as nanotechnology have taught us that new technologies demand new approaches to safe and responsible development.  This is a lesson that emerging technologies such as synthetic biology are re-enforcing.  And in today’s globalized world, corporations are increasingly realizing that sustainable development requires new value-sets and understanding that integrate safety into design and development in sophisticated ways.

And where is the expertise going to come from to achieve this?  The ERCs. Apart from the fact that they won’t be there in 18 months time if the proposed cuts are approved.

I can just see US competitors rubbing their hands in glee as they see the country’s shortsightedness eroding the foundations of its innovation strategy.

Of course, the ERCs aren’t the only source of occupational safety knowledge.  And as they stand, they will still need to develop and adapt to address emerging workplace safety needs.  But they are without a doubt a critical part of the US’s complex business and innovation structure, and their removal will have long-reaching repercussions to US innovation and competitiveness.

What is worse, it appears that the thinking behind their removal is more than a little sloppy.  The Pump Handle has already questioned the justification for killing the program.  And over on the Risk Science Blog there is a detailed rebuttal of poorly researched justifications made in the budget.

Which leaves the question – why cut a $24 million program that has proven its worth, and is probably more important to US growth and development now than at any time previously – especially where such a cut will be extremely costly to reverse once made?

It’s a question that I, and probably many others involved with making technology innovation work for Americans, are still trying to understand.

Andrew Maynard