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FYI Number 62: May 24, 2002

Marburger Addresses Balance in the Federal R&D Portfolio

At a recent meeting of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, OSTP Director John Marburger addressed the nature of the federal R&D portfolio. In his remarks, Marburger described the current funding of research in the physical sciences and looked ahead to the future. Selections from his speech follow:

"The greatest drawback of the current system of federally funded research is also regarded by many as a strength. No one federal agency dominates science funding, with the exception of the National Institutes of Health, which funds the overwhelming majority of bio-medical research. Support for all other fields is shared by typically three or more agencies. For example, the physical sciences funding is shared by DOE (38%), NASA (22%), NIH (15%) NSF (12%), and DOD (7%) with no other agency funding more than 2% . (Omitting NASA gives DOE half of the remaining physical science pie.) Computer science is funded more or less equally by DOE, DOD and NSF. Within the broad spectrum of science some agencies dominate some fields. DOE, for example, provides primary stewardship for high energy and nuclear physics. Historically, DOD has been the primary sponsor of engineering research. NSF has funded ground based astronomy, while NASA supports space science. Policy observers note that a single agency responsible for the entire science budget would be a prime target for budget cutting, and vulnerable to destabilization. But budgets for the multiple sponsoring agencies are appropriated by multiple congressional committees with other missions in addition to science. Differential treatment of the various fields of science is bound to result. Within agencies like DOE and DOD with a variety of major missions, allocations to science compete with other activities.

"It would be surprising if this system produced an ideal balance of funding among the different areas of science that support each other. The problem of determining an ideal balance, however, is as difficult as funding it once identified. Since my arrival in Washington last fall, I have been advocating a more articulated picture of science funding that I have called 'science based science policy.' The point is that science has its own intrinsic machinery that we have to pay attention to if we want it to function smoothly. It seems clear that the tools of instrumentation and computing underlie the current rapid advances in science, and that we need to understand these tools and make their funding a high priority. Having secured the basis for discovery, the next choice is how to decide among the huge number of research opportunities created by the rapid recent development of these tools. The new capabilities have opened up what has been called the frontier of complexity, which broadly speaking gives us unprecedented understanding and control of the functionality of all forms of matter based upon its atomic constitution. From this point of view, biotechnology and nanotechnology are simply the organic and inorganic aspects of a new molecular level technology of matter.

"That part of nature with the greatest complexity appears to lie in the regime dominated by electromagnetic forces, which covers the scale roughly from atomic nuclei to the earth's environment. This is where the greatest opportunities lie for discoveries that are likely to be relevant to society, and it seems reasonable to ensure that it receive the largest share of federal research support. The rationale for exploring regions smaller than nuclei and larger than earth lies elsewhere. From the point of view of social utility, the primary justification for supporting research at these remote scales is that it requires qualitatively new technology which past experience suggests is the origin of new applications at other scales. Of equal importance, however, is the fascination that most people have with exploring the unknown. Apart from the sheer satisfaction of discovering something new, the adventure of scientific exploration at the frontiers is a beacon to young people pondering worthy ventures to which they might devote their lives. Basic science is to some extent a tool for recruiting young minds to the technical needs of society.

"This is the background against which the impact on science of the events of September 11 must be assessed. There is no question that the ability of small terrorist groups to wreak havoc in our society has been enhanced by the technology integrated into our way of life. Unless we withdraw from technology-based civilization, which is almost self contradictory, it follows that technology will be essential to protecting ourselves from terrorism. Most people understand intuitively that the war against terrorism will have a strong technical flavor. What is perhaps not as obvious is that much of the technology needed for this war is already available, or within reach of the current state of the art. New basic research is needed in some areas, especially for countering bio-terrorism. But much of the technical aspect of the war against terrorism will be in the development of existing technology -- the 'D' in R&D. That does not mean that we can afford to slow our investment in research, quite the contrary. The reason we have the needed technology at hand is that the forces of economic competitiveness and the desire to improve the quality of life for all people has driven science and technology in the right direction to address terrorism issues. That is why I have stressed repeatedly that the war against terrorism will not, and should not, alter the course of science.

"We do not need the war against terrorism to justify investment in scientific research. Many studies have concluded that the long term health and security of our nation depends on continued investment in R&D. The future economy is one of globalized high technology, and America needs to maintain its technological prowess if we are to continue to provide world leadership.

"President Bush's budget for research and development in FY 2003 embodies priorities in medical research, nanotechnology, and computing that are consistent with the analysis sketched above. It also identifies and provides funding for areas such as bio-terrorism, climate change, and energy technology that are important national issues. The amounts allocated to these priorities reflect constraints imposed by the cost of the war on terrorism and a weak global economy. The largest increase is proposed for biomedical research, fulfilling a Presidential commitment to double the NIH budget over five years. In future years, we can expect similar focused priorities to address issues that have been identified in the various agency planning processes."

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

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