CHICAGO (Reuters) - Scientists are chafing at the U.S. government’s unfulfilled pledge to boost funding for basic scientific research, the source of innovations ranging from the World Wide Web to high-tech cancer treatments.
The estimated $500 million sliced out of the fiscal 2008 federal budget for research projects seeking answers to fundamental questions such as the nature of the universe could trigger a brain drain, scientists and others warn.
“Scientists are not going to wait around to be brought back. There will definitely be a brain drain,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois, a key player in securing funding for Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago.
“It was very troublesome to me, because we have had such a focus on basic research and how important it is to American competitiveness and our long-term economic growth,” Biggert said. “We’re worried about the 2009 budget now.”
President George W. Bush offers his 2009 budget blueprint to Congress on Tuesday, which could compensate for the shortfalls in the 2008 budget.
But passage of the budget is likely months away, and other spending priorities and a multibillion-dollar budget deficit are sure to constrain outlays.
In December, Bush ordered the Democratic-controlled Congress to stick to his 2008 budget cap in its final catch-all spending bill, and the resulting hundreds of millions of dollars in funding cuts left many researchers in shock.
“All these agencies (that fund scientific research) were caught up in this shoot-out between the White House and Congress,” said Michael Lubell, a physicist and a spokesman for the profession’s American Physical Society.
The battle erupted just months after Bush signed the America Competes Act into law, which calls for doubling government science funding over the next decade.
Bush cited the disconnect in his State of the Union address on Monday, admonishing Congress for inadequately funding science without mentioning his own role in the funding cuts.
Roughly 700 planned science projects have gone unfunded as a result, jeopardizing facilities in the United States and elsewhere.
The field of high-energy physics was the hardest hit. Involving particle accelerators and other expensive machines, it dominates the work at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.
“There are so many examples of young scientists who have had really very little choice about it, who have to move,” Fermilab spokeswoman Judy Jackson said.
Fermilab’s 1,900 staffers were told they have to take furloughs of one week without pay every two months, and layoffs are possible. Argonne has lost 20 of its 300 scientists.
Among the innovations credited to high-energy physics are the Internet and machines whose beams target cancerous tumors, design new materials or peer into chemical reactions.
The funding problem has reached into the medical field, disappointing researchers who must spend more time seeking grants or who may opt for clinical practice, said Carrie Wolinetz of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
“The National Institutes of Health has been essentially flat-funded for the past five years and we saw that trend continue” in 2008, she said.
There were other casualties in the budget battle, notably some projects with international funding, which could undermine U.S. credibility as a partner, scientists said.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which will help determine whether nuclear fusion can be substituted for fission, got no funding even though the United States pledged $160 million to the project.
“Science today is by and large an international activity. Will people want to partner with us?” said Robert Rosner, the director at Argonne.
Rosner called the budget cuts “devastating” and said they sent a message that will deter young researchers from around the world from coming to the United States, as he did from Germany.
He predicted multinational companies that rely on the U.S. laboratories’ facilities would go to Europe and elsewhere to meet their needs.
“There is a clear role for government to do the basic research, the private sector just can’t do it,” Biggert said.
Editing by Michael Conlon and Xavier Briand