Fewer Lab Coats on Campus
Basic science headed for most dramatic restructuring in 50 years
MIDDLETON, MASS. — STANLEY KOWALSKI ushers visitors into a cavernous hall set on a leafy hilltop north of Boston. Here, tiny electrons destined to become crash dummies for physics hurtle at nearly the speed of light into targets of pure hydrogen.
"No one else in the world is doing this kind of experiment at this time," says Dr. Kowalski, director of Bates Linear Accelerator Center, as he describes an experiment involving protons and the quarks that make them.
The center, run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the US Department of Energy, attracts researchers from around the country - and lately the red pen of lawmakers.
Last week a House subcommittee approved $18 million in cuts for Bates. If sustained, the cuts would shut down the lab.
As Congress slams on the brakes for federal spending, the United States science community is gaining new respect for the laws of inertia.
The heady growth in funding during the past 30 years for the study of basic scientific facts in all fields, from astronomy to zoology, is meeting an outside force: Lawmakers bent on balancing the federal budget by 2002.
The result: The nation's basic-research community - which, largely anchored in colleges and universities around the US - may undergo the most fundamental restructuring since the end of World War II. Some schools are hastening efforts to develop research partnerships with government and industry just to keep their programs active.
Others face the prospect of redesigning, reducing, or eliminating graduate science programs - the spawning ground for the nation's research and engineering talent. Fewer schools will be able to excel in as many fields.
If the cuts for Bates are sustained, for instance, MIT would lose its graduate program in intermediate-energy nuclear physics, the center's forte.
"I have never seen such a concentrated attack," says John Burness, senior vice president for government relations at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
"We have been - and rightly so - combining basic research and education," says Erich Bloch, former administrator of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and now distinguished fellow at the Council on Competitiveness in Washington, D.C. "But things are getting tight. Universities are going to have to reengineer themselves. There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty that justifies some pausing and rethinking."
The unsureness stems in part from the federal government's budget process. "There's an enormous amount of ambiguity," Mr. Burness says. "Programs are on and off the table daily."
Take the National Institutes of Health. With an $11.3 billion budget, the NIH is the single-largest source of basic-research funds for colleges and universities. When the Senate Budget Committee passed its budget resolution late last month, the NIH appeared to face $7.9 billion in cuts over the next seven years. But when the bill hit the floor, the cuts vanished: In an 85-to-14 vote, lawmakers restored $7 billion to NIH's budget - for now. The resolutions are only broad outlines of intent, which will become firm numbers in the various appropriations committees.
Adding to the angst is what Dr. Bloch calls "the inane differentiation between basic and applied research in Congress." It takes little to change a grant application's wording from applied to basic research and still accomplish the same objective.
"The innovative process is complex," adds Robert White, head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Still, Bloch and others say the handwriting has been on the wall for years. Cases of overcharging the federal government for research expenses have put some schools on the defensive. In addition, "the public, and parents in particular, woke up to find that undergraduate education was not the best, especially at research universities," Bloch says. Finally, the university research community may have outgrown the nation's ability to fully underwrite it.
For some institutions, downsizing may be the order of the day. Larry Sulak, chairman of the physics department at Boston University, notes that in the past five years, graduate enrollment in physics there has fallen from 120 to 72 - coincident with the rise and fall of the superconducting super collider. "We're at the critical mass," he says, referring to the point at which the school may have to decide whether or not to continue the graduate program.
'Too many PhDs'
In other cases, reorienting graduate programs may hold a key. "Do you practice birth control?" asks Steven Strom, an astronomer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Or do you look at graduate education not to prepare students for traditional careers in research but in industry and in science education. We're overproducing PhDs if our goal is to put them in academic-research careers or government jobs."
"We produce people deep in a few areas," adds Carnegie Mellon's Dr. White. "Industry wants more breadth."
R. Byron Pipes, president of Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., sees promise in developing "agile partnerships between government, universities, and the private sector" - a theme echoed by others. One of the models he points to: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to move space science out of the agency and into university-run, space-science institutes.
While details are still being worked out, NASA plans to underwrite the cost of establishing the institutes over a three- to five-year period. Once they are running, the agency would gradually withdraw most of its direct support, shifting the money to its research-grant program. "We need to get the university community to be the place we look to for science," says NASA administrator Daniel Goldin.
Yet many in the research community remain uneasy. "The budget situation is a matter for concern, but not for alarm or despondency," says Boston University's provost Jon Westling.
"If this provides an occasion for people to seriously consider how much the United States should invest in science, that's fine. But I worry that politics may distort the rational priorities people otherwise might set," Mr. Westling says. "If there ever was a time in the history of the world when it was clear that investment in new technology and the understanding and control of the natural world is the basis for economic well-being, it's got to be now."