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US Research Well in Danger of Running Dry

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2008
Peter Delfyett, OSA Public Policy Committee

Budget requests. Appropriations. Continuing resolutions. Capitol Hill jargon like this used to mean little to me. It was something for the politicians and their staffs in Washington to worry about and hash out, not terms I thought I would ever need to know.

About a dozen years ago, when I was the editor of the IEEE-LEOS newsletter, every other month I was responsible for coming up with an important topic to discuss in the opening editor’s comments. I often found myself writing about public policy issues. These issues — such as federal funding for research and development (R&D) and open access — tended to be hot topics of discussion among my colleagues and certainly were concerns that affected everyone in the profession.

When I joined the board of directors of the Optical Society of America (OSA) in 2005, I delved even deeper into policy issues by serving on OSA’s public policy committee. I learned that the US president, with input from federal agencies, submits a budget request every February that sets the tone for how much money the agencies will receive for the upcoming fiscal year. Then Congress begins the appropriations process, part of which includes nonscientists doling out money for scientific projects and agencies. If Congress can’t complete this work by the end of the current fiscal year, a continuing resolution is passed, meaning that the government operates according to the previous year’s funding levels.

All of this has an immediate effect on the work of those of us in the research community, particularly if any part of our projects’ funding comes from the federal government. A slight reduction in allocation — or even flat funding in one fiscal year — can decrease our budgets and limit the number of staff we can hire. Updates to lab equipment can be delayed or canceled. Graduate students can lose funding for their thesis projects. Federal research grants can expire without the possibility of renewal. New projects can fail to get off the ground.

These effects are real and often daunting but, fortunately, the effect that we can have on the legislative process is substantial. Case in point: a few years ago, I was visiting Capitol Hill as part of the annual Congressional Visits Day sponsored by the Science, Technology and Engineering Working Group and attended by hundreds of scientists from dozens of professional societies and institutions.

Congressional Visits Day is an opportunity for scientists to explain the importance of their research — and the funds that keep it going — to their congressmen. I joined a few colleagues from North Carolina on their visit to Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s office. We presented to her our stories of how optics has impacted our lives and the lives of people just like her and explained how the federal government plays a crucial role in these often life-saving technologies.

We ended the meeting by asking her to sign on to a “Dear Colleague” letter (a letter sent from members of Congress to other legislators to urge their support of a specific issue) calling for support of a specific science R&D-related bill. Two days later, we found out that she had signed the letter. For me, this was an immediate indication that I could, in fact, go and interact with a congressional representative and have her actually act on my input.

While on the surface getting a senator to sign on to a Dear Colleague letter may not seem like a major victory for the science community, it is important for many reasons.

First, it shows that lawmakers take the views of their constituents into consideration when making decisions. Second, it allowed us, as scientists, to share our experiences directly with a lawmaker and explain why science funding is important to her district, her state and our nation. Third, our stories can serve to demystify science for politicians who likely haven’t had a physics course since high school. And lastly, it planted the seed with the senator’s office for future support of science policy issues.

You can plant your own seeds with your lawmakers through phone calls, letters, e-mails and office visits. The timing for getting involved in the policy-making process is ripe, as the US Congress is meeting right now to make budget decisions that will affect America’s scientific future.

There is an analogy I use when I visit my representatives that draws on the idea that knowledge is similar to water in a well. We continue to draw from this well of knowledge to foster new advances in technologies that improve the quality of life for all — which for me defines our economic prosperity. Unfortunately, if we do not replenish the well by supporting R&D activities, it will run dry, leaving us in economic drought.

Recent federal funding decisions have had a negative impact on researchers, graduate students and teachers in the physical sciences. This is particularly disappointing because it comes in the wake of a major victory for the science community with last summer’s America COMPETES Act.

Drafted as a result of the 2005 National Academy of Sciences report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” the COMPETES Act is a bipartisan bill that authorized a variety of measures to ensure that America maintains its global competitive edge. Included in these authorizations were doubling the research budgets at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the US Department of Energy Office of Science.

Last December, when it was time for Congress to appropriate the actual funds authorized by the COMPETES Act, members could not agree with the administration on funding levels for most government agencies and programs before the year-end budget deadline, so everything was bundled into one large bill, called an omnibus. This forced Congress to make hard decisions about competing domestic priorities and, consequently, the funding levels for science and many other worthy programs took a hit.

At press time, efforts were under way to secure additional funding for science agencies in the fiscal year 2008 budget. If the additional funding isn’t added, the R&D community will feel the effects. For example, at the NSF alone, it would mean that 1000 fewer research grants will be awarded, graduate research fellowships will decline by 230 and the research projects of more than 3000 NSF-funded scientists will be affected.

National laboratories are seeing cuts, too. Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., is facing the layoff of 10 percent of its employees. Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source, also in Illinois, will run experiments for several weeks less than it did last year to save money.

Cuts like this will continue unless lawmakers are made aware of the dire consequences of reducing federal science money. The budget process for fiscal year 2009 funding is already under way in the US Congress. President Bush released his budget wish lists in February and, fortunately, they include significant increases for science funding that are consistent with what the COMPETES Act authorized. But if these levels are to be realized, your congressional representatives need to hear from you. Fancy budget terms aside, your voice can make a difference for our community — one congressperson at a time.

Meet the author

Peter Delfyett is the university trustee chair and professor of optics, electrical and computer engineering, and physics at CREOL at the University of Central Florida, and chair of OSA’s public policy committee; e-mail:

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