Budget freeze called threat to scientific work

Stopgap U.S. funding could delay projects, close major facilities

January 07, 2007|By New York Times News Service

The failure of Congress to pass new budgets for the current fiscal year has produced a crisis in science financing that threatens to close major facilities, delay new projects and leave thousands of government scientists out of work, federal and private officials say.

"The consequences for American science will be disastrous," said Michael S. Lubell, a senior official of the American Physical Society, the world's largest group of physicists. "The message to young scientists and industry leaders, alike, will be, `Look outside the U.S. if you want to succeed.'"

Last year, Congress passed just two of 11 spending bills - for the military and domestic security - and froze all other federal spending at 2006 levels. Factoring in inflation, the budgets translate into reductions of about 3 percent to 4 percent for most fields of science and engineering.

Congressional Democrats said last month that they would not try to finish multiple spending bills left hanging by the departed Republican majority and would instead keep most government agencies operating under their current budgets until next fall. Except for the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, the government is being financed under a stopgap resolution. It expires Feb. 15, and Democrats said they planned to extend a similar resolution through Sept. 30.

Some Republicans favored not finishing the bills because of automatic savings achieved by forgoing expected spending increases. Democrats and Republicans alike say that operating under current budgets, in some cases with less money, can strap federal agencies and lead to major disruptions in service.

Scientists say that that is especially true for the physical sciences, which include physics, chemistry and astronomy. When it comes to federal financing, such fields in recent years have fared poorly compared with biology. The National Institutes of Health, for instance, spend more than $28 billion annually on biomedical programs, five times more than all federal spending for physical sciences.

For 2007, Congress and the Bush administration agreed that the federal budget for the physical sciences should get a major increase. A year ago, in his American Competitiveness Initiative, President Bush called for doubling the money for science over a decade. That prompted schools and federal laboratories to prepare for long-deferred repairs and expansions, plans that appear to be in jeopardy.

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