APS News

NRC Releases AMO Physics Report

The National Research Council (NRC) has released a new report that charts the important contributions which atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) science research has made, the promise that future research offers, and how the federal government can most effectively support these advances. While the report–entitled Controlling the Quantum World–focuses on these fields, it provides recommendations and cautions that can be applied to many other types of basic research.

This 224-page document is one of a series of reports in a decadal survey that NRC committees will issue on various fields in physics. A report on elementary particle physics was released this spring. (See APS News, June 2006.) The 17-member Committee that prepared the AMO report was co-chaired by Philip H. Bucksbaum and Robert A. Eisenstein.

The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy sponsored the study. A pre-publication draft of this report, available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11705.html reviews how fundamental physics research in these fields has contributed to improvements in the quality of life, national security, homeland defense, economic competitiveness, health, environment, and education, among others.

The committee gives generally high marks to the support of the federal government for research in these fields, noting that most of the funding increase has occurred at DOE, NIST, and NSF. These agencies provide most of the funding for AMO science.

“There has been remarkable scientific progress in AMO physics in the past 10 years,” said Eisenstein. “Several of the funding agencies have done well in supporting AMO science.”

However, the report expresses some concern about the decline in research funding in general and in basic research funding in particular at Department of Defense agencies. “This is troubling especially because fundamental scientific research has been a critical part of the nation’s defense strategy for more than half a century,” it states.

The committee also called for continued attention and funding for theoretical research. “Given that progress on the experimental side has been phenomenal, this is exactly the time that theoretical science can play an important role,” said Eisenstein.

Funding will be of critical importance to addressing six broad “grand challenges” that the committee identified.

The report also notes that there are “very significant added pressures . . . on research group budgets,” because of the high cost of instrumentation and the complexity of the science involved.

With regard to workforce challenges, the committee “agrees with many other observers that the number of American students choosing physical sciences as a career is dangerously low. Without remediation, this problem is likely to open up an unacceptable expertise gap between the United States and other countries.” It also noted the importance of international collaboration to future advances in these fields.

Based on reporting by FYI, the American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News (http://aip.org/fyi ).

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