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Physics Tomorrow

By Thomas R. Cech, Steven Chu and Neal Lane

Thomas R. Cech
Thomas R. Cech

Steven Chu
Steven Chu

Neal Lane
Neal Lane
Federal funding for physics is flat, if not falling. The 2008 budget passed in December provides a 1.1% increase for the NSF’s research budget, not the much-anticipated first step towards doubling, which had been recommended by the National Academies’ “Gathering Storm” report and had received strong support from the President and both parties in Congress. And DOE’s Office of Science had its requested budget increase cut by two-thirds, with high-energy physics and fusion sciences especially hard hit (1). NIH funding of biomedical research has been flat for five years in a row, following doubling of its budget.

In times of constrained budgets, it’s especially important to think about the directions in which federal research dollars are focused. That’s the impetus for a new American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAA&S) study on Mechanisms of Federal Funding of Research. The Committee is not suggesting that research budgets are adequate, but the focus of our study is on how those funds are allocated.

Our committee has recognized that this is a very broad topic indeed, so we’re focusing our attention on two of the issues that are of widespread current concern: launching the research programs of early career scientists, and making sure the nation continues to support high risk, high reward research that has the potential to be transformative.

The interest in providing sufficient funding for young faculty to start their research programs has a simple explanation: those beginning their independent research careers today will make the discoveries of tomorrow and will teach the physics students of tomorrow. Put another way, it makes no sense for the society to educate young physicists through their undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral years, offer faculty positions to the best of the best through intense world-wide competitions, and then not give them the wherewithal to initiate their programs. Grad students and postdocs are privy to their research advisor’s thoughts; low morale among junior faculty leads to disenchantment of younger colleagues still in training.  

What are the numbers? At NSF, the funding rate for new investigators was 22% in FY 2000, and it had dropped to 15% in FY 2006 (2). Although the proportion of all awards that were given to new PIs compared to prior PIs has not changed in the past decade (2)–that is, the suffering has been spread evenly–missing is an analysis of how much funding new investigators require to maintain our nation’s research leadership, let alone capitalize on emerging opportunities such as nanotechnology and interdisciplinary efforts with biologists. Furthermore, “new investigators are submitting many more proposals per PI [by almost a factor of two] than are experienced investigators” (2), a dubious use of their time and energy.

What needs to be done? Although our Committee is still finishing its final report, some draft recommendations are already crystallizing. The federal funding agencies need to analyze the number of awards needed to sustain a robust US science and engineering enterprise into the future. And the agencies need to implement or sustain a sufficient level of one-time, non-renewable grants programs dedicated to the support of early career faculty (such as the NSF CAREER awards) and to institute career-stage-appropriate expectations for their mainstream grant funding, with merit review processes tailored for beginning independent researchers. Universities need to contribute as well, by actively mentoring young faculty and also by reviewing their criteria for tenure and promotion to ensure that faculty who participate in teams receive appropriate credit for their contributions to collaborative research projects.

Just as securing tomorrow’s talent is imperative for American scientific competitiveness, so too is supporting high-risk, high-reward research. When funding becomes tight, there’s a natural tendency for reviewers and program officers to give highest priority to those projects that are most likely to produce “useful” results. Much research that might be described as incremental is important and worthy of funding. But our nation’s research portfolio needs to be balanced with some projects that set out to transform our understanding of the world or develop radically new technology, while accepting the risk that they might fail completely.  

At the same time, many paradigm-shifting discoveries arise from serendipitous observations rather than a direct approach, so research grant mechanisms should empower rather than inhibit discovery. Long proposals containing a large amount of experimental detail side-track reviewers into dissecting the proposed techniques for potential shortcomings; but if one picks creative researchers, they need to be trusted to overcome such challenges as they arise. How many research projects ever proceed precisely as anticipated, anyway? Proposals should be idea-based, focusing on goals and strategies, and should articulate the potential impact of the work, not be encumbered with excessive methodology. In many cases, more emphasis should be placed on the track record of the investigator or, in the case of early career scientists, on the creativity they showed during their training period.

In addition, transformative research can be stimulated by seed money dedicated to projects that are truly high risk, high reward. Such grants could be non-renewable, but should be of sufficient size and duration to permit proof-of-concept. Some would lead to successful funding in the regular grant system.  

A major portion of our report will address the question of how federal funding at universities can improve the development of young scientists and support the genesis of transformative science. However, attention must also be paid to the National Laboratories, which have historically played a vital role in the training of early career scientists. As an example, many Nobel Laureates in Physics and Chemistry received a significant part of their early career training while working at one of DOE’s Office of Science National Labs–30 at Lawrence Berkeley Lab alone.   While individual genius is still nurtured in the setting of a national lab, teams of scientists can be quickly formed to tackle problems that would be difficult to solve with the resources of an individual principal investigator in a university. When tenure is not an issue, intimate mentoring within these collaborations becomes a natural part of the development of a young scientist. With the demise of the great industrial labs such as Bell Laboratories, the national labs remain one of the few pathways outside of the tenure track system of universities that can train the next generation of stellar scientists.

Our committee’s final report will be available later this year. Our hope is that it will stimulate a deeper discussion of our nation’s research and education enterprise and, in particular, the intertwined government and university policies and procedures that affect the success of early career scientists and the opportunity to engage in high risk, high reward research. For, as much as we may enjoy reading ww, we need to lay the groundwork for physics tomorrow as well.  

Thomas R. Cech is President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and a recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He is chairing the AAA&S committee.

Steven Chu is Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Professor of Physics, Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics. He is a member of the AAA&S committee and the National Academies “Gathering Storm” committee.

Neal Lane is the Malcolm Gillis University Professor and Senior Fellow of the James A Baker III Institute for Pubic Policy at Rice University and a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He is a member of the AAA&S Council and Executive Committee.

(1) J. Mervis (2008). Science 319, 18-19.
(2) K. L. Olsen and J. Turnow (2007). Impact of Proposal and Award Management Mechanisms.  Final Report to the National Science Board.  http://www.nsf.gov/od/ipamm/ipamm.jsp

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