APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

The Costs of War Put Science under Stress


By Michael S. Lubell,
APS Director of Public Affairs

From Washington to Boise, from London to Karachi, the air hangs heavy with the smell of war. Swift on the heels of Al Qaeda's 9/11 attack, even before America struck back against the Taliban in Afghanistan, White House military hawks had persuaded the President to adopt the doctrine of preemptive war. In September, Congress gave its blessing to the first application of the Bush Doctrine: regime change in Iraq.

Today, the United States is deployed to fight wars on two fronts, at home-against terrorism, and abroad, against deemed threats in Iraq and possibly North Korea. To date, 150,000 troops have been sent to the Middle East, about as many reservists have been called up and a Department of Homeland Security has been created that consolidates the activities of 22 agencies under the rubric of a gigantic new federal bureaucracy.

None of this comes cheap, and the pain it is causing comes at a time when the stock market is in the tank, business is shedding jobs at a rate of more than 100,000 a month and states and municipalities are awash in red ink. In two years, the nation has gone from surpluses that economists had forecast would total $5 trillion over ten years to deficits that are now projected to extend as far as the eye can see, amounting to more than $1.3 trillion dollars in the next decade, alone. That could balloon to almost $3 trillion dollars if Congress gives the President the new tax cuts he has proposed.

The impact on American science is likely to be substantial. Its effects on federal research budgets, workforce composition and international collaborations are already being felt. In Fiscal Year 2002, the federal government ran a deficit of $159 billion. And Mitch Daniels, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, now forecasts a $200 billion shortfall for Fiscal year 2003 and at least $300 billion for 2004. Against this backdrop it is little wonder that the 108th Congress began to trim back in February the increases for research that the 107th Congress had proposed for Fiscal Year 2003 last fall.

Doubling the National Science Foundation budget, as called for in the 2002 NSF Authorization Act, overwhelming passed by the House and Senate in November and signed by the President in December, now seems little more than wishful thinking. The Department of Energy's Office of Science, which had expected to see its programs grow modestly in Fiscal Year 2003, is now preparing for belt tightening, with little hope for relief anytime soon. And in the Department of Defense, the 6.1 Programs that fund basic research are coming under increasing pressure, as DOD copes with the transformation demands the Administration has placed on it in a time of war.

The science workforce is also facing transformation issues. For more than a decade, American students have shunned the physical sciences and engineering. In most of these disciplines, foreign nationals now account for more than half of freshly minted advanced degrees. Even in the life sciences, non-citizens represent a large fraction of the American workforce. The National Institutes of Health, according to a January 20th report in the Wall Street Journal, has moreforeign nationals on staff than Americans.

As a nation of immigrants, the United States has reaped huge benefits from the influx of foreign workers. Science has been no exception. And until recently, policy makers who expressed concern about the risks of a foreign-dominated science workforce, found their apprehensions subject to accusations of jingoism.

Today, all that has changed. New security regulations make it difficult, if not impossible,for scientists from "sensitive countries" to obtain study or work visas. National laboratories, especially those involved in defense research, have erected high, if not insurmountable, barriers for scientists from China, Russia, Pakistan and a host of Arab countries.

Even many prominent visitors have to wait for up to six months to obtain permission to attend conferences in the United States. The international collaborative nature of science, a hallmark of the last half century, is coming under great stress. Such are the costs of war for American science. They may be necessary, but they will leave the enterprise much weakened.




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