More Fed Cash Tagged for Research

NSF Official talks to local physicists

The federal government will be providing more financial support for the kind of physics research done at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, a National Science Foundation official said Wednesday.

But Robert Eisenstein, head of the foundation's math and physics program, said Congress and the American people are questioning the government's role in financing scientific research. Speaking before a crowd of Jefferson Lab physicists, Eisenstein said scientists everywhere have to make a case for continued support.

Congress has been much more generous to science than other intellectual pursuits, Eisenstein noted. In 1995, the federal government spent $31.3 billion on all non-military scientific research, including work done by agencies such as NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency. That's more than 100 times what it spent on the arts and humanities combined, he said.

Congress is beginning to ask whether this disparity makes sense, Eisenstein said.

"It's up to us - really you - to explain to Congress why this isn't a crazy thing," he told the physicists.

Asked how he would justify the disparity, Eisenstein noted that we live in a technological age and that scientific research is expensive. But, he conceded, "It's very difficult."

The science foundation is an independent federal agency that underwrites scientific research at universities and government labs. Though Jefferson Lab's operating budget comes from the U.S. Energy Department, scientists there depend on the foundation to the tune of $5 million a year to do their work, said spokeswoman Linda Ware.

The main mission of Jefferson Lab is to explore the basic elements of the atom using a high-speed electron laser.

The science foundation's support for physics will increase modestly, after what promises to be a significant boost next year, Eisenstein predicted. The Clinton administration has proposed increasing math and physics spending to $792 million, an 11 percent rise.

"We haven't had an increase like that in my memory," Eisenstein said.

The proposed increase is the result of a healthier federal budget and a new realization in Washington that scientific research is good for the economy, Eisenstein said. He also credits more coordinated lobbying by more than 100 science and engineering organizations.

Many of the sciences, particularly math and physics, enjoyed strong government support during the Cold War. Even as the Cold War was ending, the National Science Foundation's budget more than doubled, from $1.5 billion in 1986 to $3.5 billion today.

But the relative importance of math and physics at the foundation has waned somewhat. As other disciplines like engineering and biology have enjoyed greater favor, the share of the foundation's budget devoted to math and physics went from 28 percent in 1986 to 22 percent today, Eisenstein said.

Politicians and taxpayers should avoid making a distinction between basic research done at places such as Jefferson Lab and applied research that seeks to solve specific problems, Eisenstein said. Today's basic research makes tomorrow's applied research possible, he said.

Still, scientists must be aware of their relevance to society, Eisenstein said.

"This room is full of a lot of smart people," he said. "If you're not at least part of the solutions to society's problems, who is?"