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FYI Number 23: February 21, 2002

A View from the White House: Marburger on S&T Funding Priorities

OSTP Director John Marburger's remarks at the recent AAAS meeting provided important insights into the Bush Administration's thinking on basic research, nanotechnology, funding priorities, management, and the rationale for the funding of physical sciences. Selections from his remarks follow:

"Important things are happening in science no less than in world affairs, and the policies guiding the allocation of resources for science, engineering, and education are evolving too."

". . . there is no doubt that this [FY 2003] budget [request] expresses priorities. It provides substantial new funding for science, and it acknowledges that the nation's highest priorities -- the war against terrorism, homeland security, and economic revival -- are all served by investments in science, engineering, and education."

"This is one of the imperatives of science -- that exploration at the frontier entails advances in technology -- and it is also a powerful and pragmatic argument for supporting basic science. Many of us were drawn to science by the urge to know. Society supports us because that urge is even more productive for the improvement of the human condition than are the immediate necessities that are often said to be the mother of invention. The spin-offs of basic science are fundamentally new technologies that never would have been discovered solely in response to the needs they ultimately address. Think of the laser, of nuclear fission, or even of molecular biology, whose origins derive from a whole array of technologies developed for other purposes.

"Today the frontiers of the large and the small -- of astronomy and particle physics remain unconquered. But they have receded so far from the world of human action that the details of their phenomena are no longer very relevant to practical affairs. Not by accident, the instrumentation required to explore them has become expensive. Because we can no longer expect that society will benefit materially from the phenomena we discover in these remote hinterlands, the justification for funding these fields rests entirely on the usefulness of the technology needed for the quest, and on the joy we experience in simply knowing how nature works. (A joy, I am afraid, that is shared fully by a rapidly declining fraction of the population.)

"I believe society will continue to support the exploration of the traditional frontiers of large and small, but it will do so with increasing insistence on careful planning, careful management, and the widest possible sharing of costs for the necessarily expensive equipment. Fortunately, these fields today do possess excellent planning processes, and for the most part the great accelerators and telescopes have been well built and well managed.

"But the greatest opportunities in science today are not to be found at these remote frontiers. The inexorable ratcheting advance of technology and conceptual tools have brought science to a new and previously inaccessible frontier. It seems to me -- and I am not the first to point this out -- that we are in the early stage of a revolution in science nearly as profound as the one that occurred early in the last century with the birth of quantum mechanics."

"This revolution is caused by two developments: one is the set of instruments such as electron microscopy, synchrotron x-ray sources, lasers, scanning microscopy, and nuclear magnetic resonance devices; the other is the availability of powerful computing and information technology. Together these have brought science finally within reach of a new frontier, the frontier of complexity. . . ."

"Let me return now to the realm of science policy. The picture of science I have portrayed -- and I am aware that it is only part of science, but an important part -- has immediate implications and challenges for science policy.

"First, there is the need to fund the enabling machinery for exploring the frontier of complexity. Some of this machinery is expensive, such as the great x-ray sources operated by the Department of Energy, or the Spallation Neutron Source. Even the computing power required at the frontier is expensive and not yet widely available to investigators. The continuing priority given in the President's budget to information technology is therefore well justified. Not only does information technology directly enhance the economy through commercial products, it is also of fundamental importance for the extraordinary new control of matter at the atomic level. . . ."

"Second is the desirability of funding research in the fields that benefit from the atomic level visualization and control of functional matter. They fall into the two categories of organic and inorganic. We call them biotechnology and nanotechnology. I like to think of biotechnology as organic nanotechnology. If the term 'nanotechnology' seems vague and ill-defined, then think of the phenomena it describes as the inorganic counterpart of biotechnology, a term that is no better defined, but has the merit of having been in longer use. Both areas receive priority in the President's budget.

"Many people have asked me whether I think the huge investments advocated in the budget for medical research will distort or unbalance the pattern of funding for science. Those concerned refer to a balance that must be re-established between the life sciences and the physical sciences. I think on the contrary that the opening of the frontier of complexity creates far more opportunities in the life sciences, and that given the new atomic-level capabilities the life sciences may still be underfunded relative to the physical sciences. But I do agree that new opportunities exist also for inorganic functional materials, and these need to be exploited. And of course the enabling instrumentation is largely a product of physical science and engineering research, and these too deserve continuing priority.

"Third, there is the very serious problem of the inadequacy of resources to exploit all the new opportunities that now lie before us along the vast frontier of complexity. The richness of possibility is immense, and we simply cannot afford to explore it all at once. Choices must be made. Not only must we choose among the new opportunities in bio- and nano- technology, but we must also choose between these and expanding investments at the traditional frontiers of large and small -- or more generally between the issue-oriented sciences that clearly address societal needs, and the discovery-oriented sciences whose consequences are more a matter of conjecture. We need both, but how much of either?

"The need for choice, and for wise allocation of resources to seize the most advantage for society from our leadership in these fields, is a strong motivation for better planning and management of the nation's science enterprise. The President's budget makes much of management, and proposes many measures that are not designed particularly to save money so much as to optimize its impact. I am referring to proposals to transfer programs among agencies, to reward agencies and programs that can document the success of their projects, to find ways of making clear and explicit the basis for investment in one program rather than another. Even the horror expressed in the budget narrative at the long-standing but rapidly growing practice of congressional earmarks for science projects is consistent with the idea that the growth in opportunity requires better decision making.

"I support these science management initiatives because I believe they are essential to reassure the public -- our ultimate sponsors -- that the ever increasing investment in science is being made wisely. This is particularly true for the physical sciences whose long run of support during the Cold War was linked, correctly or not, to national security concerns. Although the relevance of physics to national security is no less now than then, the end of the Cold War brought with it a reassessment of the rationale for funding physical science, especially at the national laboratories. This reassessment has left society more skeptical about the national security argument, and agencies that support this work, particularly the Department of Energy, are working hard to clarify missions and provide strong rationales for their work. The President's budget features a management pilot program at DOE that takes advantage of the wide range of research conducted in this agency.

"At the dawn of the new millennium, public expectations of science are high, and public support for science is strong. Science policy needs to reflect the actual state of science, and its capacity for addressing the needs of society. One requires continual contact with the scientists who lead the work, the other depends upon the processes of government to frame key social issues. The Office of Science and Technology Policy stands at the strategic intersection of science and government. I am grateful for this opportunity to give my perspective on this critical juncture."

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

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