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Bush’s Budget May Benefit Laser Research

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Daniel C. McCarthy

In fiscal 2001, federal funding for defense and nondefense research reached parity for the first time in 20 years -- a Clinton administration goal. While fiscally responsible in many respects, this goal put pressure on photonics research in both academia and government labs for which the US Department of Defense is the largest federal sponsor.

The Bush administration has goals of its own and -- as did its predecessor -- it will need more than a few years to achieve them. The President's amended defense budget increases science and technology funding from 2.5 to 2.7 percent of the overall budget -- an improvement, but not the 3 percent the department had hoped to achieve.

Despite signaling the largest increase in defense spending since the 1980s, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld indicated that his department was forced to take the long view in amending perceived shortfalls, noting that "you can simply not do everything in a single year."

In fact, science and technology spending, which underwrites much of photonics research, dropped $200 million from fiscal 2001 spending levels. It could be considered good news, however, that most of this came from budgetary tiers not associated with photonics research. Basic and applied research -- academics' bread and butter -- stayed relatively untouched.

"So this budget won't especially hurt us, but it's not going up, so it won't help us all that much either," said Richard Powell, president of the Optical Society of America and vice president for research and graduate studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Predictably, anything linked to missile defense stands to benefit under Bush's administration. That includes high-energy lasers, optical coatings and adaptive optics used to deliver laser beams in free space over large distances. Rumsfeld said proposed high-energy laser research funding climbs $14 million to $108 million in 2002.
Next year, programs for the Airborne-Laser, Space-Based Laser and Space-Based Infrared System will move under the administration of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which will receive $133 million for science and technology research under the 2002 proposal, up $41 million from fiscal 2001.

It is unclear whether either of those figures will contribute to research programs for the projects mentioned above. Spending on each project breaks down as follows:
  • The Airborne Laser is up $196 million to $410 million.
  • The Space-Based Infrared System (Low) is up $113 million to $420 million.
  • The Space-Based Laser is up $28 million to $165 million.
How much of these projects' budgets will be devoted to fund research and development will not be determined until Congress has had an opportunity to review the overall budget, said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the organization.

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2001
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