APS News

Inside the Beltway: Science Funding Facing 35 Percent Cut By Year 2000

If the House and Senate Budget Committees get their way, many in the scientific community fear that overall science and technology funding could be cut as much as 35 percent by the year 2000. The committee chairs released their respective plans for balancing the federal budget by 2002 in May, and while basic research is protected to some extent, other areas may be slashed still further or eliminated altogether.

"A lot must happen before any of this is translated into appropriations, but it appears that the federal government is going to look very different - and a lot smaller," APS Director of Public Information Robert Park said. "The two plans share a common outlook: privatize it where you can, devolve it to the states where you can't, and if you can't do either, abolish it."

Technology would be hardest hit, followed by energy and the environment. Both plans call for abolishing the Office of Technology Assessment and the Department of Commerce, although the House would preserve the core programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology while eliminating the Advanced Technology Program created by the Clinton Administration two years ago. And both call for refocusing on basic research; under the House plan, the National Science Foundation's budget, after taking a small cut initially, would again reach $3.3 billion by FY 2000.

Because it includes a proposed tax cut, the House plan is necessarily more radical than the Senate's. NASA funding would decline from $14 billion to $11.7 billion. The space shuttle would be privatized while the Space Station would remain fully funded, and additional cuts of $2.7 billion would come from rescoping the Mission to Planet Earth. The plan also calls for abolishing the Department of Education and "returning education to the state and local level"; more than 150 programs would be terminated.

Finally, although the House budget calls for eliminating the Department of Energy, essential science programs would be continued elsewhere. While the plan does not call for the establishment of a Department of Science to house programs salvaged from the eliminated departments, House Science Committee Chairman Robert Walker (R-PA) said he thought such an entity might be an option. He also noted that the fate of many programs will lie with the appropriations and authorization subcommittees, which decide how and where to make many of the reductions called for in the resolution.

House Budget Committee Chair John Kasich (R-OH) described the House plan as "a landmark document," and believes it will accomplish two fundamental objectives. "First, in balancing the budget, we are assuring the continuation of the American dream by providing our children a future with more and better opportunities than we now enjoy," he said. "Second, we are beginning the process of restoring a balance by shifting power, money, and influence away from Washington back to state and local governments, and, where possible, to individuals."

However, George Brown, Jr. (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, contends that the budget numbers show a steady collapse of federal support for civilian R&D, from $27.2 billion in FY1995 to $20.6 billion in FY2000, which he believes imperils America's economic future. In addition, the reduction doesn't reflect the impact of inflation, and Brown predicts that the true purchasing power of federal R&D dollars will be even less. Assuming a 3 percent rate of inflation over the next five years, he estimates that the FY2000 budget for Science Committee programs will be 34.7 percent below the current level.

"This budget, built on short-term political calculations, will have terrible consequences for generations to come by undercutting R&D investments," said Brown. "I don't remember anyone promising to destroy the investment portfolio of this nation, but that is what [it] threatens to do. Innovation keeps our nation competitive in the global economy; the Kasich-Walker budget is the equivalent of unilateral disarmament in the war to maintain the American standard of living."

Robert Eisenstein, who heads the NSF's Physics Division, takes a less grim outlook on the situation. While acknowledging that the NSF, along with other government agencies, faces considerable downsizing beyond FY1996, he emphasizes that it's still too early in the process to make dire predictions about the future of science funding. "It's a guessing game; you're going to hear a million rumors and at most, one of them will be true," he said. "What we do know for sure is that the Republicans have the votes to do what they want. But there's not even agreement among the Republicans."

Still, Eisenstein and other physicists with an eye on Washington agree that now more than ever, the scientific community needs to speak up on its own behalf. Programs like the APS Congressional Visits are designed to provide opportunities for scientists to meet with their Congressional representatives to discuss their concerns. Roughly 136 APS members participated in the most recent round of Congressional visits in April, but according to program coordinator Francis Slakey, more volunteers are needed if a crisis in science funding is to be averted.

"Physicists aren't used to trooping up to Capitol Hill to express their views, but I think physicists should remember that they are citizens like everybody else and they have the right to exercise their democratic privileges, particularly now," said Eisenstein. "We've enjoyed 50 years of plenty, but the calculus on which that was based has changed substantially. Now physics has to compete. It has to prove its worth just like everybody else. Anything that smacks of entitlement or a right, as opposed to a privilege and a service to the country, isn't going to do as well in the current economic climate."

For more information about the APS Congressional Visits Program, contact Francis Slakey at the APS Washington Office, 529 14th Street NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC 20045; phone: 202-662-8700; FAX: 202-662-8711; email: opa@aps.org.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin