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Gloomy Science Future Foreseen

Converging problems are making U.S. science and technology less a factor in world stage

by David J. Hanson
May 3, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 18

A combination of several factors provide a gloomy outlook for much of the U.S. science and technology enterprise over the next few years. Lower federal support for basic scientific research, a continuing struggle with national security regulations, and increasing competition from the Asia-Pacific region are expected to be problems for both universities and companies for some time to come.

These were some of the principal topics at last month's Forum on Science & Technology Policy, the 29th annual meeting of science policy experts presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). What the speakers had to say was mostly uncomfortable news.

At the center of these problems are the actions and policies of the Bush Administration, many taken in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against New York City and the Pentagon. Of key concern is how these policies are affecting federal support for research and development and U.S. competitiveness around the world.

Important R&D funding trends from the President's fiscal 2005 budget proposal were presented by Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS R&D Budget & Policy Program, who sees little to be optimistic about in the figures for the next several years.

Most research agencies will suffer budget cuts because future R&D increases are expected to go primarily to homeland security projects, defense development programs, and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration. Indeed, this is where most increases in 2005 are slated. In addition to this, "Congress may attempt to impose a freeze on discretionary spending for fiscal 2005," Koizumi said, "so cuts in R&D could be worse than projections, especially in the non-homeland-security areas.


"The projected cuts to most nondefense R&D programs would leave key programs with budgets well below recent historical levels," Koizumi said of the President's fiscal 2005 budget. And although the R&D budgets for most agencies next year will be level with or smaller than this year, Koizumi was even more concerned about what will happen over the next five years if the President reduces discretionary spending as he tries to cut the record federal deficit. "In order to meet deficit reduction targets, even agencies receiving modest increases this year, like NIH and NSF, will see their R&D funding fall beginning in fiscal 2006," he predicted.

Defending the Administration's budget priorities was the director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, John H. Marburger III. Admitting that this year's budget is not too supportive of science, Marburger frequently referred to R&D budget increases over the past four years as showing the President's support. "During the current Administration, funding for basic research has increased 26% to an all-time high of $26.8 billion in the fiscal 2005 budget request," Marburger said. "R&D expenditures in this Administration are up 44% over the past four years to a record $132 billion proposed for 2005 compared to $91 billion in fiscal 2001, and the nondefense share is up 26%."

Marburger made it clear that the President's priority is security. "Increases in expenditures for homeland security have dominated changes in the discretionary budget during this Administration," he said. As a result, "the President has proposed to reduce the overall growth in nondefense, non-homeland-security spending to 0.5% this year."


This reduction in science and technology investment has not been lost on congressional leaders. Addressing the forum was Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who took exception to the President's R&D proposals.

"The Administration is abdicating its responsibility to provide scientists with the funding that cutting-edge research demands," Daschle said. He noted, as did Koizumi, that most federal support for areas such as health, environment, and biological and other sciences will see funding reduced under the President's proposal and possibly for years to come. "America's reputation as a home for cutting-edge science is being diminished."

Interestingly, Daschle suggested that scientists and engineers can do more to help themselves. Citing the success of the biomedical community in getting increased federal funds at the National Institutes of Health, Daschle noted that there is no widespread cry by society for more government spending on R&D in physical science and engineering. "You have not done enough to show the American people the connection between the work in your laboratories and their future lives." He said the American scientific community needs to rebuild the link between science and society.

This idea was also put forth by Daniel Yankelovich, the founder and chairman of Viewpoint Learning Inc., a business consulting company based in La Jolla, Calif., among other ventures. "The scientific community must find ways to be sure its funding is adequate, but without political loyalties," he warned. Scientists must be above partisanship and work to restore the climate of mutual respect and intellectual honesty that existed more than 20 years ago, he said.

The increased emphasis on national security issues has affected more than just budget increases for university researchers. The changes in visa regulations and some technical content restrictions in research contracts are creating ripples that may have profound impacts in the near future. OSTP's Marburger noted that his office continues to receive reports indicating that foreign graduate student applications are falling and that serious obstacles are being faced by some foreign scientists attending conferences and research activities in the U.S.


Major research universities are very worried about this. At the AAAS forum, Alice P. Gast, vice president for research and professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described the problems she faces.

"We have started having problems with restrictions on foreign nationals, on who could carry out research and with research restrictions," Gast said. She said the unique U.S. research system has been so successful because it provides federal funding of university research and merit-based promotions, and it allows a spirit of entrepreneurship. This system is being threatened by hastily imposed security curbs, she implied.

THE VISA PROBLEMS and other restrictions are creating a negative atmosphere for foreign graduate students on the MIT campus, she said. "The number of foreign applicants is declining, but we are not sure if the quality is declining also," Gast said. She also noted that some fields of graduate study may become unattractive because of federal regulations. "If the restrictions become too onerous, students might leave that field of study, such as infectious diseases. Also, foreign scientists may start boycotting U.S. conferences as well."

In his comments, Marburger addressed the visa problems but gave little reason for optimism. "The visa issues are still a concern. But progress will be deliberate because it must not come at the expense of security. I expect this to be a continuing issue for some time," he said. On the matter of foreign scientists visiting the U.S., "we are not simply going to open our borders," Marburger said. "We have to find other solutions."

Gast also cited conflicts between how security is being enforced by the government and the 1985 National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 189, which sets the U.S. policy on scientific and engineering information transfer. This policy states: "No restrictions may be placed upon the conduct or reporting of federally funded fundamental research that has not received national security classification." Despite a Nov. 1, 2001, letter from Condoleezza Rice, the President's national security adviser, clearly stating that NSDD 189 remains in effect, universities are facing increasing restrictions. "The export controls and restrictive contract clauses [we are facing] are overriding NSDD 189," Gast said.

David Heyman, director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a private research firm based in Washington, D.C., specializing in national and international security, reinforced the problem of perceptions by foreign students. "Our efforts to secure our borders may be hollowing our halls of scientists. We are seeing a dramatic shift in the U.S. in terms of where research is performed and published. Foreign policies are having a direct impact on those deciding to come to America to study because of negative perceptions," he said.

The brightest students also may no longer be coming to study in the U.S. because they have enticing alternatives. Canada, countries in the European Union, China, and India are making greater efforts to keep their own brightest students at home. Dave McCurdy, president of the Electronic Industries Alliance, noted that these nations are changing their policies to attract good students from around the world, competing with the U.S.

Data supporting these problems are becoming more than anecdotal. According to Denis F. Simon, of the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Institute of Technology, there are now about 400 foreign R&D centers in China, a trend being encouraged by the Chinese government. And these centers are not just for show; they are doing world-class contract work in areas such as telecommunications and pharmaceuticals, he said. General Electric, for example, had 400 R&D workers in China in 2003 and will have 1,500 by 2005, according to Simon.

And Asian nations are rapidly increasing their ability to train their own scientists and engineers, according to Diana Hicks, chair of the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology. "The strengthening of Asian nations' Ph.D. university graduates parallels the drop in foreign Ph.D. graduates in the U.S." she said. "The numbers of U.S. citizens receiving Ph.D.s are almost flat over the past 10 years, while the numbers of Asian Ph.D.s are increasing rapidly--a 54-fold increase just in China."

ANOTHER ASPECT of the difference between the U.S. and Asia is the fields where these doctorates are being awarded. In the U.S., most Ph.D.s are in biomedical fields, whereas in Asia, most are in the physical sciences and engineering, Hicks said. One result of this growth is that U.S. scientists will soon find themselves in greater competition with Asian researchers for both industry support and publication space.

A number of speakers at the forum put forth ideas to improve U.S. performance in some of these areas, to open up its research, and to increase its ability to compete. Revising visa regulations to make it easier for students to travel back and forth to their home countries and to meetings would be a big help, according to Gast. Also, improving education in math and science so that industry has a more capable workforce would make a difference, McCurdy said.

But a number of speakers said that the way for the U.S. to maintain its competitiveness is by innovation. One thing the U.S. seems to have going for it is its innovation capacity. William B. Bonvillian, legislative director for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), said: "The U.S. has to innovate its way to continuing competitive advantage. We need to increase the velocity of innovation." This was echoed by McCurdy, who said, "The U.S. needs an infrastructure designed to stay in front of the innovation curve." He recommends that the nation develop an innovation and technology vision and strategy as it looks to the future.


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