Marburger Discusses Physical Sciences Funding, Competitiveness Initiative

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Publication date: 
2 May 2006

Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger was the keynote speaker at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy on April 20. The following are selections from Marburger's address regarding the rationale for increased physical sciences funding, the American Competitiveness Initiative, priority setting for funding, competition between scientific fields, and earmarking. Marburger's full remarks may be read at


"These [also the Advanced Energy Initiative] are long term initiatives based on a conviction that science is fundamentally important for our future economic competitiveness, and for national and homeland security, the President's three highest priorities. In the larger context of post cold war science policy, the American Competitiveness Initiative [ACI]. . . is part of a long evolution that began in the early 1990's and will likely continue into the next decade."


"The question immediately comes to mind: How are you going to fund a major initiative like this and cut [overall non-security discretionary] spending at the same time? The ACI proposes nearly a billion dollars ($910 million) of new research funding for three specific agencies, and a commitment to double their combined budgets over 10 years -- a total of $50 billion during that period. To increase incentives for industrial research, the Budget would forego $4.6 billion of tax receipts for companies that invest in research and experimentation, for a 10 year cost of $86.4 billion. The education component of the ACI would add another $380 million in FY07. The President's FY2007 budget does not increase overall non-defense discretionary budget authority, and the request for nondefense R&D budget is proposed to increase at a rate slightly less than inflation. Accommodating the ACI in a flat or declining budget is only possible by setting priorities and allocating funds differentially to the highest priority programs. The key phrase in the President's reference to this program is the ‘American Competitiveness Initiative that targets funding…' The FY07 budget for science is very clearly about priorities."


"The word ‘prioritize' sends shivers down the backs of most science advocates," Marburger said. He cited a speech given eighteen years ago by National Academy of Sciences President Frank Press which Marburger said "was a shocker of a speech because Frank made concrete proposals for how to prioritize science in a time of fiscal constraint, and urged his colleagues to participate in the process." Marburger continued, "I regard Frank's 1988 address as a key document in the history of American science policy. He prepared it at a time when scientists were chafing under the crunch of a serious budget deficit that the President and Congress were struggling to get under control. Research opportunities were outstripping growth in the non-defense federal science budget and different sectors of the science community were sniping nastily at each other. . . . "

"These [funding levels and priorities] remain the issues today, but in the intervening years something very important has happened, and the atmosphere is different. I am not sure there ever was a time that scientists felt their sponsored funds were commensurate with their opportunities for discovery, and frustration over that gap is widespread to this day. But I no longer see the sharp-edged ill-will among different fields that worried [Frank] Press nearly twenty years ago. Those were the final years of Cold War science policy and cracks had begun to appear in the framework of mutual understanding among sponsors and researchers that had supported science since Sputnik. Today we are emerging from that long transition in U.S. science policy I mentioned that began at about the time of Frank Press's 1988 address. Let me reflect for a moment on what happened during that period.

"In 1989 the Berlin wall came down, and Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues at CERN launched the world wide web. Two years later historians declared the cold war officially over, and Congress began looking for a peace dividend. Within the Department of Defense, the largest sponsor of university based engineering research, science was not spared. In 1993 Congress terminated the superconducting super collider and narrowly authorized the international space station project with a margin of one vote. The ebbing tide of cold war weapons production had revealed a huge problem of environmental contamination at Department of Energy weapons facilities, and DOE science funding went flat. House Science Committee chairman George Brown admonished scientists in general, and physical scientists in particular, to seek a new post-cold war rationale for government funding of their work. Industries that had supported productive research laboratories began reducing budgets and shrinking their horizons. Some were reacting to reductions in defense spending, and others to deregulation and continued competitive pressure from Japan and the then emerging Asian ‘tiger economies.'

"Science, meanwhile, saw new horizons opening with the almost miraculous appearance of powerful tools generated by the information technology revolution. If Frank Press's late 1980's were a ‘golden age' for science, the 1990's revealed a platinum, or even a diamond age of discovery based on new capabilities for managing complex or data intensive systems, and especially the extraordinarily complex systems of the life sciences. The coming twenty-first century was described as the century of biology in contrast with the old century of physics. The new technologies, to be sure, were based on physical science, but it appeared to be a known and reliable physical science that had provided an inventory of capabilities ‘on the shelf' that the military or industry could exploit in its own new breed of shorter horizon, development-oriented, R&D laboratories. Industrial research made Moore's ‘law' come true during this decade, and produced the devices and systems that lured entrepreneurs and their financial backers into the dotcom bubble. These conditions tended to obscure the role of basic research in the physical sciences and depress the perception of its importance in the agencies on which the field had depended since World War II."


Marburger cited a 1995 NRC committee report, a 1998 report prepared by Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), several PCAST reports, a Council of Competitiveness Report, and last year's National Academy Report ("Rising Above the Gathering Storm...) and then stated: "These reports contributed to a clear basis for establishing funding priorities among programs and agencies in the ACI initiative, launched in President Bush's January 2006 State of the Union message. The policy principles are first that funding long term, high risk research is a federal responsibility; second that areas of science most likely to contribute to long term economic competitiveness should receive priority; and third that current levels of funding for research in the physical sciences are too low in many agencies.

"The American Competitiveness Initiative identifies the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Department of Defense as key agencies with major funding satisfying the three principles, and seeks to double the budgets of the first three over the next decade. The current year increase for the sum of the three is 9.3%. . . . My point in recounting history since Frank Press's 1988 speech is to contrast the reluctance of non-government science stakeholders at that time to discuss priorities among different fields with what can be read as a consensus within some of the same communities today that even in a time of budgetary constraint something needs to be done with the budgets in at least some areas of physical science research."


"[T]he ‘Gathering Storm' report played an important role in bringing diverse components together under the theme of economic competitiveness and created an atmosphere in which such a complex set of proposals could receive favorable treatment by Congress. The report's authors, and particularly the committee chairman Norman Augustine, deserve a great deal of credit for investing time and energy to raise awareness of the need for a set of coordinated actions to ensure the future economic competitiveness of our nation."


"I have said little about the budgets of other areas of science, or the details of how the ACI can be funded without serious negative impacts on other areas of science funding. The fact is that the FY07 cost of the ACI is dwarfed by the $2.7 billion in current year earmarks in the research budget. Earmarking has increased rapidly during the past five years, and has reached the point where it now threatens the missions of the agencies whose funds have been directed toward purposes that do not support the agency work-plans. From the point of view of transparency in government operations, earmarking at this level erodes the value of reported budget numbers for inferring agency resources."

"Earmarking and prioritization are clearly related. One person's priority is another's earmark. One of the drivers for earmarking is the reluctance of individuals or institutions to participate in the merit based review procedures that are best practices in most funding agencies today. Another is the absence of funding programs for categories of expense that are deemed important even sometimes by the targeted agencies. I believe that where science stakeholders can form a consensus on priorities, the negative impact of earmarking can be greatly diminished."

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