Plea for Physics Research

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Researchers in the physical sciences need an immediate and significant budget boost to close a ballooning gap with biomedical research, a high-profile White House advisory panel said yesterday. But in a bow to budgetary realpolitik, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is vague about specific spending targets and timetables.

Lobbyists have long pleaded for doubling the budgets of the Natural Science Foundation (NSF) and other agencies that fund the physical sciences. They argue that stagnation in physical science budgets--which totaled about $9 billion last year--has imperiled the nation's ability to develop new talent and technologies and to fully cash in on the taxpayers' $25 billion investment in biomedical science. But while some industry leaders and powerful members of Congress have embraced the idea, the White House has remained quietly skeptical, and presidential science adviser Jack Marburger has challenged physical sciences' advocates to back their case with solid numbers.

That caution emerged again yesterday during a hastily called teleconference to fine-tune a letter to President George W. Bush drafted by a PCAST subcommittee led by G. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and an accompanying report penned by panelist Erich Bloch, a former NSF director. Marburger successfully argued for deleting a specific "doubling" goal mentioned in the draft, saying the word had become "politically charged" and "unpalatable." He also noted that the president "bristles at arbitrary formulas." Marburger urged panel members to take the long view, noting that it recently took 5 years to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The final version of the letter is expected to call for physical science funding to reach "parity" with the life sciences by 2009.

The definition of "parity," however, will be up to the reader, says Clough. "It doesn't make sense to say that the physical sciences should get whatever the life sciences are getting," he told ScienceNow. "But the idea is that significant make-up [for the physical sciences] is due here."

The effect of the letter won't be visible until February, when the president releases his 2004 budget request. But Clough is optimistic. Budget chief Mitch Daniels, he says, "has proven to be a person that understands good advice."

Posted in Policy