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FYI Number 55: May 3, 2006

Insights into Administration's Research Funding Priorities

"[The American Competitiveness Initiative] refocuses the federal R&D portfolio by placing increased emphasis on fundamental research in key areas of the physical sciences and engineering.... A broad consensus exists that these are the most important areas for generating additional breakthroughs that drive the economy, and these are also the areas of the federal R&D portfolio most in need of additional resources. They deserve priority in the FY07 budget over all other R&D, except perhaps for selected programs supporting national and homeland security." - OSTP Director John Marburger

As explained in previous FYIs, President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative proposes doubling, within ten years, the combined budgets of NSF, DOE's Office of Science, and NIST's core programs. Under the FY 2007 request, NSF's budget would grow 7.9%, to $6,020.2 million, while the Office of Science budget would grow 14.1% to $4,101.7 million, and NIST's core budget would increase 24.0%, to $535 million, after subtracting out earmarks. At a March hearing before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation and Competitiveness, John Marburger, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, provided some insights on why the Administration chose these specific agencies and areas for enhanced funding.

WHY BASIC RESEARCH?

"The Administration designed the American Competitiveness Initiative to prioritize and advance those scientific endeavors with the highest marginal value for future economic competitiveness. Public sector research funding that typically has the highest marginal value is not directed toward specific products or technologies, but rather fosters the generation of fundamental knowledge that has significant spillover benefits that cannot be captured through intellectual property protection. Economists have concluded that such research can generate large public returns but does not usually provide a direct profitable return for private sector performers."

WHY PHYSICAL SCIENCES AND ENGINEERING?

"Certain areas of physical science and engineering research are strongly correlated with innovation and economic growth. The ACI priority agencies each have special features that merit significant attention even in a period of budgetary constraint.

"The DoE Office of Science (SC) is the nation's largest sponsor of physical science research. It supports physical science capabilities and infrastructure used by a large number of investigators in nearly every field of science, and particularly those related to economically significant innovations (e.g. nano-, bio-, info-tech, energy, new materials and processes). Within DOE-SC, the new funding from ACI is expected to improve facilities and support approximately 2,600 new researchers.

"The National Science Foundation (NSF) is the primary source of support for academic research in the physical sciences. It funds potentially transformative basic research in areas such as nanotechnology, information technology, physics, materials science, and engineering. The NSF is well-regarded for management of funding through competitive, peer-reviewed processes. The NSF funding derived from the ACI initiative is expected to support as many as 500 more research grants in 2007 and provide opportunities for upwards of 6,400 additional scientists, students, post-doctoral fellows and technicians to contribute to the innovation enterprise.

"The DoC National Institute of Standards and Technology may be the highest leverage Federal research agency supporting economically significant innovations. Its world class team of scientists, recognized by three Nobel prizes during the past decade, plays a critical role in supporting standards development activities that are essential for the commercial viability of new technology. In FY 2007, NIST will seek to focus 3,900 scientists and engineers from government, industry and universities – an increase of 600 researchers over 2006 – on meeting the Nation's most urgent measurement science and standards needs to speed innovation and improve U.S competitiveness."

MAXIMIZING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF RESEARCH FUNDING

"The widespread support for actions such as proposed in the President's American Competitiveness Initiative is deeply gratifying to us in government who labor on behalf of science and engineering. I want to take this opportunity to point out that the recommendations of the many organizations that have spoken out on the need for such an initiative express priorities for action in a very broad and general way. When money is tight, and many needs compete for finite resources, it is necessary to define priorities with much more specificity than these otherwise excellent advocacy reports. The ACI responds to this need to prioritize. It attempts to direct funds to agencies with well-defined programs with a clear relevance to future economic competitiveness. It does not attempt to expand support for every area of basic science, nor even for every field within the physical sciences. It seeks the maximum impact with the minimum of bureaucratic apparatus, taking advantage of programs and processes already in place and working well."

Another witness at the March 29 hearing, Leonard Peitrafesa of North Carolina State University, Raleigh, summed up why a competitiveness initiative should focus on supporting basic research:

"By any measure, basic scientific research has made monumental contributions to technology and to the national priorities of the U.S. The bond between basic research and the development of both novel and current technologies has been and is well in place. Science and U.S. society must continue to co-evolve. The nature of this evolution will certainly be affected by the extent to which this Senate sets funding priorities. Hopefully this Senate will recognize that the dependence of the development of successful novel technologies on broadly supported basic research will lead to a future nation that is healthier and more economically prosperous than at present. Because of the unpredictability of the details of the new science and technology that will evolve, the details of social evolution are also unpredictable. But the future health and prosperity of this nation are inextricably coupled to the investments made in basic research today.

"We see that we have no birthright to global economic leadership and a high standard of living. These are things that we have to continue to earn."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3094

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