APS News


Funding Cuts in Physical Sciences Reach
the Danger Level

By Keith R. Dienes and Gordon Kane

For research physicists, learning to live with funding cuts is often considered par for the course. For many years now, both theoretical and experimental physicists have been challenged to maintain high-quality research programs with decreasing financial support and resources. Sometimes, they have even been able to do so.

However, we believe that the effects of this trend are now reaching a dangerous stage. From large groups at prominent universities to individual researchers at liberal arts colleges and undergraduate institutions, recent funding cuts are beginning to cause considerable damage to the health and vitality of our field. The funding level for newly hired faculty is woefully insufficient for the establishment of vibrant research programs, thereby threatening promising careers at their inception. Likewise, the depth of recent cuts required of larger, more prominent groups has been so great that we fear for their continued excellence. Indeed, funding agencies are now being forced into cannibalistic choices, sacrificing funding for one active researcher in order to minimally support another. Or, as may be happening in nuclear physics and other areas, choosing between major facilities. Even if funding continues at current levels, we believe that the physics research program in the United States will suffer significant and possibly permanent harm.

As theorists, we are particularly aware of the shortages of funding for theoretical research, yet the intellectual merits of a strong theoretical program are very clear. Strong university programs combine the best of both theory and experiment, and help attract the best young minds to the sciences. A healthy theoretical infrastructure is also absolutely necessary for the planning and guidance of future experiments, as well as for the interpretation of data from upcoming experiments in all branches of physics, whether high-energy physics, astrophysics, cosmology, condensed-matter physics, or even biophysics. Indeed, in some fields, there are large experiments for which significant funds have already been spent; without appropriate theoretical input, the full impact of measurements may not be realized. While theory is relatively inexpensive compared with experiment, it plays a critical role in the scientific ecosystem, and adequate funding is necessary in order to sustain it.

But there are also broader issues at play across all of the physical sciences. According to a recent report issued by the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation (available at http://www.futureofinnovation.org), the effects of funding cuts for the physical sciences are already being felt at both the national and international levels. During just the past several years, the United States has been passed by Western Europe in the total numbers of published science and engineering articles, with a 7% lead turning into a 5% deficit in just the past 13 years. Asia is also rapidly closing in on the US, with our 27% lead already cut in half. Moreover, the US share of worldwide citations is shrinking significantly, falling by 8% in a single decade. While such statistics are for scientific research in general, the situation in the theoretical physical sciences is as bad or worse.

The larger implications of this funding crisis are dramatic. For the first time, the United States is under threat of losing its dominant position in US patent applications, and the world's fastest-growing economies are rapidly gaining on the US in terms of total research & development investments. The US is rapidly losing its world share of high-tech industrial exports, and in just the past four years has gone from being a net exporter to a net importer of advanced-technology products. This includes sectors as diverse as energy, aerospace, biotechnology, information technology, and nanotechnology. Even our graduate programs are threatened: as foreign university research funding levels begin to exceed those in the US, it is only natural that increasing numbers of foreign graduate students—a major asset of our PhD programs—will choose to remain in their home countries, denying the US an important inflow of talent and intellectual strength. It is worth noting that the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, which issued this alarming report, comprises not only academic and scientific institutions such as the American Physical, Chemical, and Mathematical Societies, but also leading private technology corporations such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, and Texas Instruments.

The causes of this worsening situation are clear. As a percentage of the US Gross Domestic Product, federal investment in the Physical Sciences has fallen by nearly 50% over the past thirty years. While funding for the biological sciences has kept pace with inflation and even seen increases, funding for the physical sciences has fallen far short — worse than average for all research. The effects on the future of the American workforce are also clear. While the number of Bachelors degrees in the biological and life sciences has climbed by 71% in the past twenty years, the numbers of Bachelors degrees awarded in the physical sciences, in engineering, in mathematics, and in computer/information sciences have fallen by 11%, 21%, 28% and 36% respectively. Students will clearly not invest their futures in fields in which the federal government is unwilling to invest its financial resources. Taken together, this state of affairs not only damages the American educational system and the state of American science, but also has threatening, far-reaching effects on the American economy and national security.

Where can we go from here? Clearly, maintaining preeminence in the sciences, and specifically theoretical physics, will require sustained funding at a significantly higher level than is presently available. We believe that at least a 20% increase in available funds is necessary to maintain the minimal health of the field. Major roadblocks are now occurring in four critical areas: support for graduate students in PhD programs; numbers of postdocs supported for high-quality scientific training; funding for new faculty; and funding for top researchers who require adequate resources to be maximally productive. All of these areas desperately require significant increases soon. Securing adequate resources must be a primary goal for all of us, and for the organizations that represent us. Undoubtedly, this will require efforts and arguments that go beyond business as usual. It's time to start.

Keith R. Dienes is Associate Professor of Physics and Mathematics at the University of Arizona. Gordon Kane is the Victor Weisskopf Collegiate Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff