One of the leading scientific organizations in the United States is expressing concern about a slowdown in planned spending on research by the U.S. government, especially the Defense Department. A study to be presented at a conference in Washington on Thursday says the slowdown could hurt long-term scientific advances, surrender technological leadership to other countries and even make it more difficult for the United States to fight effectively in a future war.
According to the study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, President Bush's proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts this October provides for government spending on research to continue to grow, but only by .1 percent, well below the inflation rate of about two percent.
The study says defense spending on research is projected to not keep up with inflation for the first time in a decade, and some government departments are actually to reduce their research spending. The study says research on energy and the environment is to be particularly hard hit, while research on health care subjects would rise just .5 percent, failing to at least keep pace with inflation for the first time in 24 years. The main area exempt from the trend, according to the study, is space research, where money is being spent to reach President Bush's goal of returning astronauts to the moon and sending them on to Mars.
According to the study's author, Kei Koizumi, the impact of the slowdown in spending on research and development could be widespread. "The concern is that by decreasing federal investments in R&D [research and development] just at a time when high-technology products are more important than ever in our economy, and just as countries like India and China and South Korea are increasing their investments in these areas, the U.S. could be endangering its future economic health," he said.
Mr. Koizumi says in the new budget the Defense Department would continue to fund the majority of all research and development projects in the United States, about 53 percent. But he says more and more of that money is being given to projects that, as he put it, "focus on developing specific weapons systems," leaving basic research under-funded. Specific basic research projects may or may not ever result in useful advances, but Mr. Koizumi says under-funding such research could result in missed opportunities in fields ranging from computer science to mathematics to oceanography.
"In this time when we're actually in a war in Iraq, the Defense Department is very focused on the short term right now. But the importance of basic research is that eventually the Pentagon is going to need to be ready for the wars of the future, and meeting some very tough technical challenges," he said.
The Defense Department declined to comment on the study.
Mr. Koizumi, who monitors research spending and government policy for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says the slowdown in research spending is related to administration efforts to reduce the federal budget deficit. But he warns that science is the wrong area to cut. "R and D portfolios that are shrinking, or that fail to keep pace with inflation, make it very difficult to sustain our research and engineering enterprise. It means far fewer worthwhile grant application ideas will be funded. It means fewer graduate students can be trained in the sciences and engineering. It also means that more scientific ideas may be pursued and exploited overseas, rather than in the U.S," he said.
According to Mr. Koizumi's study, the government still plans to spend a substantial amount of money on research and development next year, more than $132 billion, an $84 million increase over the current year. The projects have an extremely broad range. A list published by the Defense Department last month includes funding for research on the networking of computers on a battlefield, electronic jamming technology, the development of new composite materials, and computer models for analyzing human behavior and cultural differences.
Still, Mr. Koizumi warns that the funding planned for next year may not be enough to maintain the U.S. position as the world's technology leader and ensure that the U.S. military has all the technology it needs for the wars of the future. The American Association for the Advancement of Science is calling on the Congress to increase funding for research and development as it processes the president's budget proposal in the coming months.