Sustaining Scientific Leadership

By U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL-13th)
April 2009

As Congress begins to debate its budget plans for fiscal year 2010, a look at past mistakes can instruct and lead to future success when it comes to sustaining America’s scientific leadership and economic competitiveness.

In December of 2007, Congress had yet to agree to several major appropriations bills and decided instead to pass an Omnibus spending package that left a number of key agencies and programs dramatically underfunded, including physics research.

Particularly troubling to me were cuts to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, which supports over 40 percent of all federally sponsored research in the basic physical sciences. It also is the principal source of funding for Argonne National Laboratory, and the sole source of funding for Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, both in my home state of Illinois. These are places where critical research is being done in areas like alternative energies, biotechnology, nanotechnology, material and chemical sciences, and supercomputing, and are home to unique facilities used by thousands of scientists from U.S. industry, academia, and the government.

Again in 2008, the Office of Science’s budget – excluding earmarks – increased at a rate less than inflation. Significantly reduced or cut altogether were High Energy Physics, Basic Energy Science user facilities, and the U.S. contribution to the international fusion experiment ITER. 

To make matters worse, $124 million was earmarked from the DOE Office of Science’s budget, the bulk of which was largely for items totally unrelated to DOE’s mission, such as MRI machines for hospitals.

In the end, through a year-long campaign, we were able to secure funding in a later supplemental appropriations package to help avert more shutdowns and layoffs at many of our national laboratories. But for those in the scientific community, it was a wake-up call to the need for action to prevent America from losing its brightest young talent and surrendering scientific leadership to competitors in Europe or Asia.

As a Senior member of the House Science and Technology Committee and Co-Chair of the House Research and Development Caucus, I work hard to educate Members of Congress about the importance of basic scientific research. There are many reasons to support the work being done at America’s laboratories and research universities, but here are five that I find particularly compelling and that I would encourage you to share with your Representatives in Washington.

First, over half of the growth in the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. over the last fifty years is attributable to past investments in science and technology development.  That’s why we must make investing in basic research a priority to ensure that U.S. businesses large and small remain competitive and create good American jobs in an increasingly global marketplace. In an environment where we are striving to stimulate this economy, research and development can and should play a central role.

Second, basic research is often the key to overcoming technical obstacles to the development and deployment of advanced technologies, whether we are talking about energy, healthcare, environmental protection, or military technologies. It is critical to the competitiveness of American industry and to enhancing national security, improving our health, preserving our environment, and reducing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and gas.

Third, strong federal support for research also ensures that American scientists and engineers have access to unique tools and facilities that will keep the U.S. at the forefront of scientific discovery. By building and maintaining such tools and facilities, we are investing in the nation’s capacity to innovate and effectively use science to confront national challenges in the future. 

Fourth, investing in basic science is an investment in the education and training of the next generation of scientists and engineers. By actively participating in the planning and execution of just about every basic research project, graduate fellows and doctoral candidates learn how to effectively conduct research and expand their own knowledge in a given field – invaluable experience and insight that make them the hope for our future.

Finally, the private sector no longer conducts much basic research, which by its very nature is high-risk and longer-term. As a result, the funding of basic research is an appropriate governmental responsibility, which is why it should be among the highest of priorities for future budgets.

These are all reasons it’s more important than ever that we stay on a path that will fulfill the commitments made in the 2007 America Competes Act, which aims to double Office of Science funding within a 10-year period. 

As you are probably aware, Congress did provide significant increases for the DOE Office of Science, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) within the recently passed stimulus measure and fiscal year 2009 Omnibus appropriations package. However, with tight budgetary pressures amid the current economic recession, these important priorities will have to compete vigorously for funding during future years.  And as Congress takes up the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2010, that’s when input from members of the American Physical Society and other scientific institutions will be crucial.

So please, join with your fellow scientists, contact your Members of Congress, and let the American public know how important physical research is to America’s long-term economic health and competitiveness.

U.S Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL-13th) is Co-Chair of the House Research and Development Caucus and a Senior Member of the House Science and Technology Committee.

US Rep. Judy Biggert

U.S. Representative Judy Biggert