By Jim Barlow
Federal funding for research is at a crossroads, where certainty of support is clouded by a cry for a balanced U.S. budget within five years, by 84 new members of Congress whose attitudes toward research have yet to be tested, by a more conservative Senate and by projections of a 20 percent-plus decline in research funding by 2002.
The 105th Congress convened this month. The president's proposed Fiscal 1998 budget is due Feb. 6 and will be followed by hearings on the funding requests of various agencies. For university-based researchers, the issue is what happens to the government's discretionary fund, from which virtually all funds for research originate. Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has said discretionary spending in fiscal 1998 would at best stay at this year's levels.
Fifty-two percent of the annual $135 million in federal research funding at the UI comes from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, both of which survived the fiscal 1997 budget with slight increases.
There have been projections that the two agencies will fare reasonably well in the next budget, perhaps even adjusting upward to account for inflation. However, the journal Science reported last month that the Clinton administration had told the major agencies that they should not expect more funds than were approved for fiscal 1997.
The greatest concern is what happens with the mission agencies, such as the Department of Defense, NASA, Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, said Rick Schoell, director of federal relations for the UI. The university receives about $40 million a year from the DOD, EPA and DOE.
A legislative alert issued late last year by the American Geophysical Union warned that sharp cutbacks may be in store for some 15,000 researchers -- many of them at universities -- who are involved in high-energy physics, nuclear physics, synchroton radiation and neutron physics. Such impacts, the union noted, would affect a multidisciplinary research community that spans physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and engineering.
Internal pressures on the DOD's technology-based programs -- which account for more than 50 percent of federal support in engineering, computer science and related fields in the physical sciences -- appear to be deepening, said Jack Crowley, special assistant to the president of the Massachussetts Insititute of Technology and director of MIT's Washington office. Some researchers already have been told to anticipate sharp cuts, he said.
"The university and industry communities will have to make a concerted effort in Congress to secure the fiscal year 1998 budgets requested for research and then work with the administration to maintain DOD's leadership role in research," Crowley said. "This will not be an easy task, but if the DOD's role in long-term research erodes, the consequences will be felt in engineering schools and computer science departments across the country."
Last month, the presidents of the Big 10 universities, including UI President James K. Stukel, sent a letter to President Clinton reminding him that "our nation's current technological and economic strength owed much to the government-university research partnership established more than 50 years ago" and stressing that research-based education today is the training ground for scientists and engineers of tomorrow.
The UI is actively involved in The Science Coalition, a 2-year-old organization of about 400 representatives from major universities, associations and industry that formed with the goal of promoting the public value of research to Congress and the administration. Schoell and Bill Murphy, associate chancellor for public affairs, represent the university on the coalition. Jiri Jonas, director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, spoke to congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., last fall at the invitation of the coalition. Jonas and Joe Lyding, UI professor of electrical and computer engineering, also attended a forum last spring that brought academic and business leaders from across the country together to meet with U.S. Senators.
Informing the public about the positive impact of research on everyday living has been a rallying cry. Neal Lane, director of the National Science Foundation, repeatedly has called upon scientists to be advocates for their own research.
"Part of the problem is that the public, including media people and most elected representatives, have had no experience to help them understand the nature of research and why it is so important and worthy of taxpayer support," Lane said in a September speech to faculty members at the University of Pennsylvania. "We are all challenged to help correct this problem by getting the word out."
Federal funding is seen as a battle ground for the next five years. It is difficult to predict how any one agency may do from year to year. Uncertainty appears certain.
"It's not going to be OK," John Burness of Duke University said in a December meeting of the Science Coalition in Washington, D.C. "Everybody could take a haircut. This will be an on-going battle that we'll have to fight year in and year out. At some point, Congress may say, 'You have done well, it's time for you to take a hit in the battle of the balanced budget.' "