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of citizens, but by the same token its impact can be all the more profound. Although today's technology and economy are now more closely linked in time with basic physics research than in the past, 10 to 20 years is still the typical interval between a fundamental physics discovery and its impact on society. This can be seen with the laser, magnetic resonance imaging, the optical-fiber transmission line, and many other examples. Much of today's high-tech economy is being driven by the technology that grew out of physics research in the early 1980s.
The unprecedented opportunities facing physics are placing entirely new demands on the field. To study particle interactions at the highest energies, nuclear matter at the highest densities, and the universe at the largest scales and at the earliest moments of its existence requires new instruments of great size and complexity. World-class basic research in quantum phenomena and materials synthesis, with its important economic benefit, can only be carried out with a new generation of sophisticated and precise instrumentation.
Because the federal government plays such a pivotal role in basic physics research, the current level of federal support appears to the committee to be well below the level of support needed to ensure the nation's continuing growth and prosperity. Federal support declined in constant dollars during the 1990s (
Figure 11.1). This decline, coming after the modest growth of the 1980s, has meant that growth in the last 20 years averaged only about 2 percent per year. Relative to the size of the economy as measured by the GDP, federal support dropped by more than 20 percent from 1980 to the present (
Figure 11.2). This trend, in the view of the committee, has made it more difficult for federal science agencies to support outstanding proposals, making the field of physics less attractive to the excellent people it needs.
Several features in
Figure 11.1 are worthy of note. The decrease in the constant-dollar support of basic physics research by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense from the early 1980s through 1997 is evident, as is the growth in this support from NASA. Another feature, not always appreciated, is that the federal agency providing the most support for basic research in physics is the Department of Energy. Much of this support is provided through the DOE's national laboratories such as Brookhaven Laboratory, Argonne Laboratory, Fermilab, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The importance of the DOE to the nation's scientific and technological strength extends far beyond the defense laboratories, discussed in
Determining the right level for federal support of basic research in any area of science is a very difficult task. However, looking at the economic