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To Congress: Let’s Get Physical

From the editor.
February 1, 2003

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.

I could cite the Cold War’s end and other conditions that contributed to this crisis. But let me try another tack. Read our special report, “10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World”. Then ask yourself, What will a report like this look like 10 years from now if the government continues to neglect investment in these critical areas?

Or turn to “Supercomputing Resurrected”. This powerful story showcases how Japan, with its Earth Simulator, has taken the lead in supercomputing-and how U.S. neglect of this vitally important technology has left the nation scrambling to catch up. Indeed, Japan’s success points to a golden age of big scientific computing that promises payoffs in global-climate modeling, understanding how the body’s proteins work, and simulations of similarly complex systems. The United States initially responded to the $350 million Japanese effort with a few $3 million research grants to pursue new supercomputing architectures. Last November the Energy Department upped the ante by awarding a $267 million contract to IBM to build a faster supercomputer than the Earth Simulator. These may be prudent first steps. But without a commitment that goes beyond playing catch-up, the nation risks falling further behind and delaying important discoveries. Yes, I realize that this sounds like the same argument we heard about Asia and Europe in the 1980s. But vigilance must be eternal.

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