The University Record, September 19, 1994

Federal research funds: ‘More people chasing fewer dollars’

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

As a physicist, Martha Krebs places a high value on basic scientific research. As a national policy-maker, she recognizes that science must compete with other important social programs for increasingly scarce federal funds. As director of energy research for the U.S. Department of Energy, part of Krebs’ job is explaining how science benefits society and why taxpayers should continue their support for basic research.

Krebs came to Ann Arbor last week to share her multi-faceted view of our changing national science and technology policy with U-M scientists and students.

The first of several policy experts who will speak here during the 1994–95 academic year, Krebs presented a public lecture and participated in a panel discussion titled “National Science and Technology Policy: Beyond Advocacy.”

“There is a serious effort under way within the research community to rethink basic issues related to science,” says Homer A. Neal, vice president for research, who sponsored Krebs’ visit. “It requires an ongoing dialogue between science policy-makers and scientists.”

“With the end of the Cold War and the current economic realities facing our nation, any discussion of science and technology policy must now focus on new questions,” Krebs said. “What types of research should we invest in? What are the benefits to society of R&D investment? What are our priorities?”

Although current federal funding for basic and applied scientific research has more than doubled in the last 15 years, Krebs acknowledged that’s little comfort to individual university researchers whose piece of the total budget pie is shrinking.

“While total funding has grown substantially, much of it has been focused on applied research and team-based research centers,” Krebs said. “In terms of the impact on individual scientists, we have more people chasing fewer dollars.”

During this period of shifting and competing priorities, Krebs believes it is vitally important for scientists and policy-makers to communicate the “benefits and impacts of what we do” to society.

Krebs maintains that undergraduate students educated at major research universities can be particularly effective spokespersons for science.

“One of the most important products coming out of basic university research is young people—not only those conducting research in graduate school, but also undergraduates working throughout society. When you expose undergraduates to a research environment, not only does the quality of their educational experience improve; the students also develop a strong sense of the value of science in their lives.”

According to Krebs, the increasing public focus on accountability in science is not a “death knell” for basic research. “There’s no end to research that could make a difference to society,” she said. “We’re just not going to be able to do all of it as fast as we’d like to.”