enced a “systems failure,” with most federal research and development (R&D) programs receiving substantially less than in the President’s budget request and in Congressional authorizations. “Regrettably,” said NSF director Arden Bement, “the funding has failed to appear…. As often happens in politics, the short term squeezed out the long term.”
The consequences for some federal agencies and research performers have been severe. According to Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, despite authorization bills backed by both parties, the appropriations for basic research were much less. “In constant dollars (adjusted for inflation), the budgets of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science from 2006 through 2008 were almost flat. For fiscal 2008, this meant that essentially no new proposals for solar energy research were funded by the DOE Office of Science, and many programs received cutbacks.” The National Science Foundation was able to support 1,000 fewer new research grants in 2008 and 230 fewer graduate research fellows, with more than 3,000 faculty researchers, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and undergraduates affected. Many new high-impact centers in areas such as physics, materials science, and chemical innovation also could not be funded. “The nation’s colleges and universities have been particularly hard hit,” noted Bement. “The four-year period from 2004 through 2007 may represent the first continuous decline in federal investment and basic R&D in colleges and universities in the past 25 years.”
This basic research is an essential underpinning of future economic prosperity, many speakers at the meeting pointed out. Many 20th-century technologies, such as the transistor and biotechnology, sprang directly from basic research. These technologies are often transformative, noted Chu, in that they become the foundations of multiple industries and great wealth.
The funding needed to boost basic research is not a large amount in the context of the federal budget. As University of Maryland President C.D. Mote, Jr. observed, the federal government recently put together a multi-billion-dollar package to shore up the mortgage industry. “Ironically, that amount of money would have funded the entire