The erosion of US technological strength

Basic science in the United States is a serious trouble.A decline in support of most elements of basic research began with the economic crisis of 1967. Since then, recurring crises have added to the problem.

In the '70s urgent technological problems (e.g., energy, environment) have competed for manpower and money with a subject that delivers few votes and whose repayments to society appear remote. Almost everyone agrees that basic research is an important activity, but when budgets must balance or an important water project be funded, the science constituency is rarely there.

The public, given half a chance, shares the excitement of intellectual discovery with the scientists and shares, with the government, a faith in its social value. The executive branch, I believe, lacks a true perception of the long-range problems or the required imagination and courage to do right. Many members of Congress lack detailed information and the necessary time perspective. The scientists have clearly failed to make their case all around.

Typical of the attitude of some legislators is that another convenient cut into the basic research budget would merely result in the "deferral of marginal activities" or induce a "pause in growth." I want to argue that the present trend, superimposed on the long slide since 1967, has brought the activity to the danger point of irreversible contraction and imperils the long-range future prospects of survival of a society inescapably based on technology.

To argue factually I use, as an example, my own subject of high energy particle physics. I believe other disciplines can tell similar stories.

High energy physics concerns itself with the study of the structure of matter and energy -- it seeks the most elementary constituents out of which all matter is constructed. We deal with such exotica as quarks and neutrinos. The things we call elementary change with time. The predecessors of today's particle phsysicists successively solved the fundamental problems of the atom (from 1900- 1950) and the atomic nucleus (1930-1960) and, in so doing, laid the foundation for the dramatic revolution of post-World War II technology.

The progress in nuclear physics was made possible by a series of inventions -- particle accelerators, which began, in the US, with the invention of the cyclotron by E. O. Lawrence in 1930.

The 20-year period after World War II was one of great accomplishments, thanks to a stable and adequate rate of funding growth. This made passible increasingly more powerful accelerators and sophisticated particle detectors. A vast and unexpected richness was uncovered in the subnuclear domain. The US was clearly the world leader although extensive facilities were built in Europe, the USSR, and Japan. Now, due to our own strong foundation and a resurgent European contribution, 1980 is a period of imminent synthesis of a magnitude unequaled since the 1930s. Parallel progress was made in biology, astronomy, and the other basic research disciplines.

The decline in funding of high energy physics, which began in 1967, has resulted in a 30 percent decrease in dollars of constant purchasing power. In terms of the percentage of GNP (gross national product), funding for all of physics decreased by more than a factor of two. At the same time, the complexity and cost of the research has been increasing.

There resulted a dramatic contraction of facilities. Accelerators were retired at Argonne Laboratory, Berkeley, Harvard-MIT, Princeton, and Caltech. There remained three diversified centers: Brookhaven in New York, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, and Stanford in California. These supply the accelerator facilities for about 80 US universities. Today, because of budgetary restraints, the accelerators are being operated at less than 50 percent of full utilization in spite of a capital investment of well over $1 billion.

Our problems are intensified by competition from Western Europe. In the mid-'70s European funding for high energy physics passed that of the US. European high energy research now enjoys a support which is twice that of the US for roughly the same GNP and population base.

While their population of PhD physicists in this field is approaching 2,000, the US number has been stationary at 1,100. The loss of young US scientists is probably the most catastrophic result of the funding squeeze. Since it is totally unreasonable to ask the creative scientist to put many years of his or her life into research which will be done sooner and with more powerful equipment in Europe, second best can quickly become second rate.

The US laboratories have attempted to overcome this problem by bold innovation to develop new opportunities and reduce costs. The addition of superconducting accelerators at Fermilab and Brookhaven and the design of a new type of linear collider at Stanford are examples. However, these efforts, which involve developing equipment at the far frontier of technology, have naturally met unexpected problems. In the present climate of funding, boldness is discouraged and the programs run the risk of delays and discouragement.

The present fiscal crisis (1981 Federal Budget) threatens a further decrease in real funding. The loss in real purchasing power from 1978 through 1981 (President's Budget is about 12 percent or $45 million. It must be noted that the contraction of the past 13 years has reduced flexibility to a bare minimum. About 70 percent of the operating support now goes for salary-related costs and 15 percent goes for electrical power. This leaves very little for programmatic options.

The leverage of even a few percent change is exceedingly high. There now is serious consideration in the US physics community of a further contraction of the scope and base to two laboratories. This would destroy geographical balance and, worse, deny US physicists the diversity of facilities which the science requires.

To insure the success of our innovations and the viability of three laboratories and to raise utilization to 50 percent would require an increase of about 15 percent over the President's 1981 budget for high energy physics. An increase (over the next few years) of 30 percent in real purchasing power would enable us to capitalize on our ingenuity, begin to recapture the young investigators, and to compete successfully on the world scene.

This would cost about $100 million or .015 percent of the federal budget. A proportionate restoration for all of basic research would add 0.25 percent. Of equivalent significance would be a mechanism for stabilizing support, of insulating it from the next fiscal crisis. This is crucial in view of the long-term nature of the pure research activity. An accelerator takes seven years to build, experiments average three years, and the training of professionals takes five years after the doctoral degree.

The forthcoming crises facing society are generally perceived. One sums the facts of depleting natural resources, planetary constamination, and the reasonable expectations of developing nations. When these problems are extrapolated to the 21st century, it is clear that humane solutions will require radically new technologies, deployed with a much greater understanding of both social and natural constraints. However, it is not at all clear that we have enough understanding of nature to devise these new technologies. If we neglect the basic research endeavor, we are in grave danger of a collapse of technology-based society.

The foolishness of undersupport of basic research is compounded by the fact that there is a continuing repayment to society in technological "spin-off." The social uses of pure research are indeed long term. But inventions, incidental to the carrying out of the research, create goods, services, taxes, conveniences , and life-prolonging devices which more than pay for the costs of the research.

The interaction of basic research and industrial technology is complicated. But basic research engenders a state of mind and a standard of quality. There is a strong inference that the weakening of traditional US leadership in advanced technology, surely a major factor in our stagnant economy, is related to the 13-year slide in funding of the research sector.

A vigorous and imaginative recommitment to support of basic research is economic and social sanity and an expression of faith in the future of our society.

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