U of C asks Congress to aid research

By Alison Sider

President Zimmer joined a coalition of university and research industry leaders on Capitol Hill earlier this month to lobby members of Congress and the Bush administration for more funding for scientific research. The officials mobilized in response to a budget cut earlier this year that slashed millions of dollars for science research in this year’s final federal budget proposal.

Bob Rosenberg, associate vice president for public affairs and communications at the University, said that the lobbyists are concerned that “the direction of funding for research in this country is flat and trending downward.”

The coalition said that they hoped to make a dramatic statement about the importance of funding scientific research through a strong show of numbers. Zimmer was joined by the presidents of Duke University, the University of Maryland, the University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Alabama, and the University of New Mexico. Industry leaders such as Norman Augustine, retired CEO and chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp.; and Christopher Hansen, president and CEO of American Electronics Association, also participated.

In meetings with Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and House Science Committee Chair Bart Gordon (D-TN), the coalition called for a $300-million increase for the Department of Energy Office of Science, and an additional $200 million for the National Science Foundation in a supplemental appropriations bill for 2008. These agencies are largely responsible for the funding of large national laboratories throughout the country. The group also met with Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL).

A congressional resolution passed in December has kept Department of Energy (DOE) funding capped at the 2006 budget level. Congress has said it will continue flat funding through the remainder of the fiscal year, leaving Argonne and Fermilab with substantial budget shortfalls they have to accommodate through layoffs, pay freezes, and the shutdown of research projects.

The budget cuts have had particularly troubling consequences for high-energy physics research. The Department of Energy funds 90 percent of the federally funded research in high-energy physics in the U.S., including most of the research conducted at the U of C–affiliated Fermilab. The budget cuts slashed Fermilab’s funding by $52 million from an expected $372 million, stalling development on the International Linear Collider that Fermi had hoped to host. The cuts will also potentially cost the lab up to 200 jobs. Argonne expects to lay off roughly five percent of its workforce and freeze the start of a highly anticipated $72 million nanotechnology research center.

Rosenberg said that while the restoration of funds to avoid job cuts and projects is a high- priority goal for the lobbyists, the coalition also focused on securing longer-term funding for laboratories nationwide. Interest in high-energy physics research boomed after World World II, but declined after the end of the Cold War.

Nevertheless, Rosenberg said that the coalition members believe that even as the U.S. moves into the 21st century, the national laboratories remain scientifically valuable. He added that without increased funding, the U.S. may lose its place as a top country for innovative and progressive scientific research.

“Our ability to recruit top scientists and students is based on research agenda. Our ability to do research keeps us at forefront,” he said. “Research and education go hand in hand.”

Rosenbaum said that the coalition members raised concerns about the ways the science budget cuts might affect the U.S. economy negatively in the long run.

Augustine said that without the necessary federal funding, even highly skilled research jobs are at risk of being cut.

“While scientists and engineers represent only four percent of the U.S. workforce, their productivity creates jobs for 96 percent of the population. We are going to increasingly see the need for stimulus packages if we don’t invest in basic science. We’re not rising above the gathering storm,” he said in a press release by the Association of American Universities.

Rosenberg said that the coalition left Washington feeling optimistic that their message had been conveyed.

“There are strong feelings that both in the press conference as well as meetings with DOE secretary and leaders on the Hill, everyone was supportive and message got across in an effective way,” he said.