Science project

Congressional delegation must fight for research money

The area's congressional delegation has its work cut out for it, trying to protect two corners of the upcoming budget that are important for Hampton Roads and the nation. Both have to do with science, which has been the beneficiary of some recent presidential rhetorical flourishes but shortchanged in the federal budget.

Aeronautics should be near the top of the delegation's priorities, to make up for all the years it suffered budget bludgeoning in obscurity and protect it from the still deeper damage President Bush wants to inflict. He has taken aim at aeronautics to find money for his manned space initiative. For that he's come in for some scolding from the House Science Committee, but little real pushback. Why Congress is allowing a program with so little support among the scientific community to desiccate programs that do have support is a mystery. Aeronautics research is slated for an 18 percent cut next year, taking the worst hit of the sciences as NASA's priorities are upended to fund a 30 percent increase for space exploration. Overall, science, including programs that study the earth's atmosphere as well as what's out in space, face a $3 billion cut over the next five years.

The assault on aeronautics will hurt, coming on top of cuts that already slashed research funding by more than half. The nation is surrendering its dominance of aviation to Europe, where industry has the advantage of government research help. It will hurt the public, which enjoys the benefits of safer, more reliable, more environmentally friendly flight that come from aeronautics research. It will hurt locally, where 600 jobs at NASA Langley Research Center were lost last year, more will go this year, and a $50 million cut is slated for next year in Bush's budget.

Rep. Jo Ann Davis has been dogged in fighting for aeronautics and frank in challenging the value of the manned space program. She needs a lot of support.

Skip over the city line and to a different branch of science, and there's another battle looming, this on behalf of the Department of Energy, which funds the Jefferson Lab in Newport News. The discipline is nuclear physics, but the benefits to the public can be just as real, showing up in areas such as medicine. Here, the sands are shifting. This year surprise cuts reduced the lab's research hours and staff, but Bush is proposing a big hike next year. The delegation's job is to defend adequate funding.

A drumbeat of data — about our students' performance in science, the state of our competitiveness — is spelling out an undeniable message: The United States must shore up its science infrastructure. Congress should heed that message as it addresses two items critical to the nation's strength and prosperity. The region's delegation should be at the forefront in making the case.