In Era of Constrained Budgets, Basic Research Remains Critical for Nation's Prosperity

Why science in the U.S. needs consistent support from the federal government to stay competitive.
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Inside Science Contributor

Inside Science presents Inside Science Minds, an ongoing series of guest columnists & personal perspectives on science presented by scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and others in the science community. The opinions contained in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Inside Science nor the American Institute of Physics and its Member Societies.

By: William F. Brinkman 

(Inside Science Minds) -- Even in a period of constrained budgets, science in the United States needs consistent support from the federal government to keep the nation competitive in a world that is rapidly advancing.  

I have seen the vital role played by scientific research from both an industry and a government perspective: During a long career at Bell Laboratories from the mid-1960s to 2000, and more recently, as director of the Department of Energy's Office of Science since 2009. American strength and prosperity since the end of World War II have depended critically on American leadership in science and continue to do so today. Indeed, federal support for basic research has never been more important, since industry no longer funds such research.  

Times have simply changed. During my career at Bell Laboratories, there was tremendous support for basic research. However, that was a period when research was yielding many new results relevant to communications -- Bell's core business. In addition, wartime inventions such as radar and the atomic bomb created an atmosphere where for many years it was believed that one only needed to plant the seeds of research and wait for the flowers to grow. Yet today the business world is driven increasingly by the short-term need to sustain quarterly profits. It can no longer afford basic research.

That is why the work of agencies such as the DOE Office of Science is so vitally important today. Less known than some other federal science funding agencies, the Office of Science is in fact a major pillar of America's science effort -- the largest sponsor of physical science research at universities and national laboratories across the nation. Since its origins, the office has supported research leading to over 100 Nobel prizes, including this year's physics prize to Saul Perlmutter for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe. Our office stewards 10 national laboratories and funds major scientific facilities around the country -- including several synchrotron light sources -- which have characterized many important materials and delineated thousands of protein structures. The Office of Science initiated the decoding of the human genome, partnering with the National Institutes of Health.  Recently, we built the world's first hard X-ray laser, which opens new exciting areas of research.  

We are also the lead federal agency for basic research in energy, supporting science leading to the development of new battery materials, new solar cells, new methods for producing biofuels, and new materials, using both experiment and high-end computation. With high-performance computers, we are a major contributor to climate modeling, advancing knowledge needed to sustain planet Earth. 

To accelerate clean energy research, we have created new modes of research funding. We have established three Bioenergy Research Centers to attack the problems of biofuel production at the most fundamental level. We have created 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers to pursue basic energy-related research in materials science, chemistry, geosciences, and bioscience. We have established an Energy Innovation Hub aimed at developing fuels directly from sunlight. These centers use a team approach that has brought together scientists in unprecedentedly productive collaborations. We believe these efforts are paying off and are playing an important role in moving America toward a clean energy future.  

We are also the main U.S. sponsor of fundamental research in particle physics and cosmology, nuclear physics and fusion energy. Research in these latter fields has generated multiple innovations, from the World Wide Web to synchrotron light sources, plasma processing, nuclear power and accelerators and isotopes for medicine and many Nobel Prizes. These fields are driven by large facilities such as the international Large Hadron Collider and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider and future facilities such as the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams and ITER. Although there can be no question that we must drive toward clean energy solutions, we need to find ways to continue to support this work to advance our knowledge of the universe in which we live.  

In a time of constrained budgets, we must plan carefully. We at DOE are taking many measures to reduce overhead, streamlining our processes, cutting back on personnel and making the system more transparent. But we must also keep our commitments to funding clean energy and general scientific research, as well as existing facilities and those in the construction pipeline. And we must honor our international commitments to activities like the LHC and ITER.  

So, as we go forward in these fiscally challenging times, it is essential for scientists, while advocating for their own fields, to come together to support science broadly. Doing so will keep America on pace in our increasingly competitive world. It will sustain our strength and prosperity, and maintain our place in discovering... innovating... leading.

William F. Brinkman is a physicist who has served since June 2009 as the Director of the Office of Science in the U.S. Department of Energy. During his career in the private and public sectors, he has overseen research efforts at Bell Labs, Sandia National Laboratories, and Princeton University.