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FYI Number 101: September 6, 2002

Presidential Panel Recommends Increased Physical Sciences Funding

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has prepared a draft letter to President Bush urging significant increases in federal research funding for physical sciences and some fields of engineering. The letter follows the release of a PCAST report recommending "the R&D budget be adjusted upward for the physical sciences and engineering, bringing them collectively to parity with the life sciences over the next 5 budget cycles."

PCAST has 23 members from industry, educational institutions, and research organizations. At its first meeting in early March, G. Wayne Clough, President of the Georgia Institute of Technology, was appointed the chair of a subcommittee on federal R&D that oversaw the development of recommendations (see /fyi/2002/029.html.)

PCAST first contracted with RAND Corporation and AAAS to produce a study reviewing R&D spending over the last twenty- five years. This study was the basis for a 14-page draft report by PCAST member Erich Bloch entitled "Assessing the U.S. R&D Investment" ( Bloch's report highlighted shifting allocations in R&D spending, including changes in funding from the federal government to the private sector that could reduce support for basic and applied research. This report gave considerable attention to the declining share of funding for physical sciences and other sciences in the federal R&D portfolio as compared to the life sciences. This affects the number of graduate and Ph.D. students, facilities, and interdependent disciplines.

The Bloch report recommends that the R&D budget for physical sciences and engineering reach a parity with the life sciences in the next five years. The report explains "the focus must be to achieve a rebalance by increasing these disciplines and not by decreasing the life sciences."

Other recommendations pertain to workforce issues, fragmented R&D structures in the executive and legislative branches, suggestions on how the executive branch can determine the optimum distribution of R&D, and international competition and cooperation.

Last week, PCAST members participated in a one-hour conference call open to the (listening only) public. The members reviewed an August 28 draft of a 3 1/2 page letter to President Bush regarding the FY 2004 budget. The letter made six key observations: "federal R&D funding as compared to GDP continues to decline," "private sector R&D investments do not sufficiently replace shrinking federal support," "inadequate federal funding for physical sciences and engineering hurts all scientific disciplines," "declining federal support for science and engineering students jeopardizes economic growth," "complex management structure prevents a focused R&D vision," and "international competition is stronger than ever."

The draft letter made three recommendations. Regarding funding, it stated: "Testimony from public and private sector representatives indicated that 'of greatest concern to the scientific community is the balance between the physical and life sciences.' Moreover, U.S. industry representatives expressly stated that 'physical sciences need sustained increases immediately'" to sustain economic competitiveness. "Consequently," this draft letter said, "we suggest that FY 2004 presents the appropriate opportunity to double federal research investments in physical sciences, and 4 major engineering fields (i.e., electrical, mechanical, chemical, and metallurgy & materials) from the FY 2002 levels." The other recommendations concerned the establishment of a major fellowship program and a review of federal R&D spending. The full text of the letter can be read at

The budget recommendation was the major topic of the one-hour PCAST conference call. The call offered an unusual behind- the-scenes perspective on how such recommendations are fashioned (the Federal Register notice states that a transcript of the call will be posted on the PCAST web site at OSTP Director John Marburger, a PCAST chair, stated that they wanted to send the letter to President Bush to affect the FY 2004 budget. In his remarks, the other PCAST chair, E. Floyd Kvamme, told his colleagues that the "most common comment that we heard day in and day out" during eight hours of hearings was the need to increase funding for the physical sciences.

There was considerable discussion about the time frame for increasing this funding, with a recommendation that it be extended to FY 2006. Marburger cautioned that doubling is "a politically charged word." There was discussion about framing the rationale for an increase, with Marburger saying that it has always been difficult to make an argument for a specific amount. Yet, he said, "I think it would be a problem if we did not have a basis for it," quickly adding, "we would like to see as much of an increase as possible." Marburger later advised that the President would "bristle" at "arbitrary formulas" for increasing funding.

The final letter will be covered in FYI when it becomes available.

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

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