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FYI Number 115: September 7, 2001

Report Quantifies Precipitous Decline in Federal Physics Research Funding

Federal funding for physics research declined 24.6% from FY 1993 to 1999, according to a report recently released by the National Research Council.

This is but one number in a report containing literally hundreds of numbers that illustrate the way in which the level and composition of the federal research portfolio changed during the last decade. The 161-page report, "Trends in Federal Support of Research and Graduate Education" has not yet been published, although it is available for viewing on the National Academies web site. Dale Jorgenson, a professor of Economics at Harvard University, chaired the committee that authored the report.

This report offers many insights - far too many to summarize in this FYI. Other fields discussed include astronomy, geology, and engineering. Policy recommendations are offered. The following selections from this report are some of the more pertinent concerning federal support for physics:

"Federal research funding in the aggregate turned a corner in FY 1998 after five years of stagnation. Total expenditures were up 4.5 percent in FY 1998 over their level in 1993. A year later, in FY 1999, they were up 11.7 percent over 1993."

"There is cause for concern about the allocation of funding among fields in the federal research portfolio, in particular with respect to most of the physical sciences and engineering whose funding, in contrast with the biomedical sciences, has with few exceptions stagnated or declined."

"Federal funding of [total] research in the physical sciences was $4.1 billion in 1999, compared with $4.9 billion in 1993 (measured in 1999 dollars). The bulk of the decline occurred in physics research. Federal funding was $2.2 billion, compared with $2.9 billion in 1993. Astronomy also had less funding in 1999 than in 1993 ($757.9 vs. $766.0 million), as did chemistry ($814.9 vs. $941.1 million).

"The major cuts in physics research were made by DOE and DOD. DOE reduced its support by $461.7 million (-25.3 percent) and DOD by $308.3 million (-57.8 percent), compared with the 1993 funding level. NSF also reduced its level of support, by $8.6 million (-4.7 percent). Some agencies (NIH, DOC, NASA, and others) increased funding, but the total of $75.4 million did little to offset the large cuts at DOE and DOE." [sic]

"In physics, federal agencies obligated 5.2 percent less for basic research in 1999 than they had in 1993, compared with a decrease in 24.6 percent in total research."

"In 1993, physics research received 62 percent of its funding from DOE and 18 percent from DOD.... Both DOE and DOD reduced funding, by 28 and 63 percent ($506 and $335 million), respectively, in 1997 compared with 1993. The next largest funder, NSF, also cut funding of physics research, by 27 percent ($49 million). There were small increases from NASA, DOC, NIH, and other agencies, but overall there was 28 percent less funding ($818 million) in 1997 compared with 1993. DOE, DOD, and NSF increased their support some after 1997, but physics research funding was still 25 percent less in 1999 than in 1993. DOE still accounted for most of the federal funding of physics research (61 percent in 1999 compared with 62 percent in 1993), indicating that physics was not able to change its base of support."

"The fields that grew [in funding] despite reliance on a shrinking agency [budget base] - e.g., computer science, metallurgy/materials engineering - diversification of support explains their success in large part. For the fields such as electrical engineering and physics that were dependent mainly on an agency with a shrinking budget and that were not able to diversify saw their funding decline significantly."

"Federal funding for university physics research declined by 7.4 percent from 1993 to 1999. During this period, the number of full-time physics graduate students declined steadily and substantially, by 22.1 percent .... Federally supported graduate students declined by 22.6 percent and federally supported graduate research assistants (RAs) declined by 20.8 percent. The average annual decrease for federally supported physics graduate students was 4.2 percent and for those with nonfederal funding was 4.0 percent."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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