Commentary: The end of frontier science?

  • 19 January 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss

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THE toll of war is beginning to affect progress in science back home. Or perhaps it is just a coincidence that the UK and the US, the two Western countries most involved in Iraq, have just unveiled budgets that go a long way towards killing off frontier science funding in both countries.

In an omnibus funding bill passed in late December, Congress added $70 billion in extra money for the war. To pare down the rest by $22 billion, requested increases for three major physical science agencies - the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology - were taken away. With this proposed level of funding, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has reported that federal investment in basic and applied research will grow by just 1 per cent in the 2008 financial year, far less than inflation, making it the fourth year in a row in which federal research investment has declined in real terms.

The effect on high-energy physics and fusion research will be nothing short of devastating. The country's biggest high-energy physics lab - Fermilab, near Chicago - faces major lay-offs, and a major experiment to detect neutrino oscillation has been axed. Three-quarters of the proposed funding for the ambitious International Linear Collider (ILC) has been cut, as has all US funding for ITER, the international fusion project. University-based research programmes in particle physics are being decimated too, with support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows disappearing.

The effect on high-energy physics and fusion research will be devastating

All this comes at a time when US competitiveness in forefront research, from physics to genetics and biotechnology, is under threat. In a report released last year, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that "in a world where advanced knowledge is widespread and low-cost labour is readily available, US advantages in the marketplace and in science and technology have begun to erode". The report recommended doubling federal support for research in the basic physical sciences if the US is to remain globally competitive. The latest spending bill erases any gains made toward this goal.

In the UK, particle physics and astrophysics face an even gloomier situation. The Science and Technology Facilities Council announced last month that due to a £80 million cut in government research funding, British participation will cease in the ILC and in two major telescope projects, the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile and the Isaac Newton Telescopes on the Canary Islands. The UK appears to be cutting itself off from the future of these two fields and some university departments may be in danger of closing.

Whatever one's views on the Iraq war, the question is whether rich countries like the UK and the US can afford to sponsor forefront basic science in hard economic times. Esoteric research is easy to cut because it is perceived to have no significant constituency, nor any immediate technological or economic spin-offs. Such arguments led to the death of the Superconducting Supercollider Project in the US in the 1990s.

But we should remember that the excitement generated by fundamental discoveries inspires young people to go into science and engineering careers in other, more practical areas, and that such discoveries can revolutionise practical technologies as well as our deeper understanding of nature. And as far as the latter is concerned, when considering national priorities for defence versus science spending it's worth remembering the words of Robert Wilson, Fermilab's first director. Asked by a congressional committee if the lab would aid national defence, he replied: "No, but it will help keep the nation worth defending."

From issue 2639 of New Scientist magazine, 19 January 2008, page 48