The United States is waging a campaign it cannot afford to lose: the effort to nurture the basic, often long-shot research that drives much economic growth. Understanding this, the nation has for years led the world in research-and-development investment. But it takes due diligence to stay atop the effort. The good news is that federal funding for life sciences research has soared in the past decade. But the largesse has been unevenly distributed. Uncle Sam has not been investing enough-or particularly wisely-in the fundamental physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering research necessary to ensure new computing architectures, alternative energy sources, improved forms of transportation, and other underpinnings of a vibrant economy.
Redressing this imbalance must be a first order of business for the new Congress. The previous Congress left Washington, DC, having appropriated funds for nothing but the Defense Department for fiscal year 2003, which began last October 1. This means that the modest plans afoot to bolster the physical sciences-chiefly in the budget of the National Science Foundation-are still on shaky ground. Its appropriation must be finalized. Even more critical is the fiscal 2004 budget due to be taken up this month. Failure to significantly boost spending on physical sciences and engineering-not just at NSF, but also at the Department of Energy, NASA, and fellow agencies-would be a grave mistake.
For several years, leaders in business, government, and academia have pressed for this change. An important 2001 National Research Council report, Trends in Federal Support of Research and Graduate Education, noted that from 1993 to 1999, the portion of the federal R&D portfolio devoted to physical sciences and engineering slipped from 37 percent to 31 percent. Moreover, funding for each of five critical fields-physics, geological sciences, and mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering-declined a worrisome 20 percent or more. Things haven’t changed much since.