Proliferation of research groups. There has been a steady growth in the number of physics research groups in the universities. Between 1984 and 1992, the number of research awards from the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (astronomy, chemistry, materials science, mathematics, and physics) grew by 39 percent, from 3,621 to 5,021. The research budget has not kept pace. Although there was some growth in the early 1980s, the budget since 1985 has been essentially flat in constant dollars, in spite of the fact that the overall NSF budget increased substantially. The result, as one might expect, has been the erosion of our research capability. Two symptoms are of particular concern: researchers are spending inordinate amounts of time in attempting to obtain funding, and even the best U.S. research groups are finding themselves in competition with European groups that have vastly more resources at their disposal. As an example, the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Germany has a budget about two-thirds the size of the total NSF program in atomic, molecular, and optical physics. The average NSF grant size for experimental physics is about $120,000 per year, whereas the cost of a modest program in a private university—two graduate students, a postdoctoral researcher, some equipment—is about twice that amount.

A policy of stretching a relatively fixed budget to accommodate a steadily increasing number of research groups would be foolish. The problem, however, is not a poor policy. The problem is no policy. Without some overall plan for the future, the situation for university research in the physical sciences will continue to deteriorate.

Big Science and Small Science

The balance of resources between large projects organized around major facilities and support for the small research groups in the universities and elsewhere is an increasingly divisive issue in the science community. The major facilities are created in response to initiatives from the research community, but because of their magnitude, they inevitably acquire a political constituency. No such constituency is concerned with the health of small science. This problem is well known and widely discussed. However, in the absence of a comprehensive science policy, there is no way to assure a reasonable balance between these styles of research or that our overall scientific investments are reasonable.

A Concluding Thought

The COSEPUP report Science, Technology, and the Federal Government presents national goals for science and technology. In the absence of a coherent science policy, the prospects that the nation will meet these goals, or any other scientific agenda that is deemed worthy, are poor. The COSEPUP report states, “For half a century, the federal government has strongly supported basic research in science and engineering. However, the government has never formulated an explicit policy for setting the level of that support” (p. 29). We can no longer conduct ourselves in this manner. We must recognize that our “no policy” is no longer working.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement