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Pulling the plug on science?

From Voyager spacecraft to atom smashers, America's long-term research faces an era of budget cuts.

For decades, American scientists have unlocked nature's secrets, generated an enormous number of patents, and earned a string of Nobel Prizes.

These days, however, pride of accomplishment is mingling with angst as Washington contemplates research cuts on everything from space weather to high-energy physics. The concern? The United States unwittingly may be positioning itself for a long, steady decline in basic research - a key engine for economic growth - at a time when competitors from Europe and Asia are hot on America's heels.

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Observers point to several examples in the White House budget proposals for fiscal 2006, which begins in October:

• To align itself with President Bush's vision for space exploration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has notified mission managers of its intent to pull the plug on several projects, including the prized Voyager spacecraft. These 28-year-old craft are now approaching the solar system's edge - with enough power left to keep them phoning home until 2020 about regions of space that humans are unlikely to probe again for decades.

Other potential casualties include satellites critical to understanding and forecasting solar storms - which can damage satellites, cause blackouts on Earth, and threaten humans living and working in space - as well as several Earth-observing satellites needed for climate research and other environmental-monitoring activities.

• At the Department of Energy, the Office of Science faces a second year of cuts, affecting programs ranging from energy research to high-energy physics. By some accounts, the US may be out of the experimental side of high-energy physics altogether in five years unless its bid to host a planned international linear collider is successful.

• The science and technology share of the Defense Department budget will fall far below the department's recommended level. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - the archetype for funding speculative research, whose support led to the creation of the Internet - has a brighter budget picture. But the demand is for projects with faster payoffs.

The demands for short-term results are not limited to DARPA, researchers add. Yet many of the gains the US has enjoyed from science has come from basic research that is largely curiosity-driven. Money for this type of science is critical to educating new generations of scientists and engineers.

The next few years don't look good for basic science, says Robert Gagosian, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. "We can't be No. 1 in everything, but it's important we stay No. 1" in areas vital to America's economy and its ability to monitor the environment, education, and national defense - areas where the US is cutting back.

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The atmosphere of uncertainty itself takes a toll, adds Tim Killeen, director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., and president-elect of the American Geophysical Union. "It doesn't take a lot to start to dismantle scientific capability.... The most creative people are the ones who leave early," because they are the most highly prized and can find work elsewhere. So after months or years assembling top-notch teams to tackle difficult questions, what remains is a large proportion of second-string talent, he adds.

Even a six-month lag in a field like biotechnology can be costly as foreign competitors file patents first, analysts say.

Complaints about stingy research budgets are hardly new. A cursory look at budget trends over the last 30 years could leave the impression that no amount of money will satisfy researchers. From 1976 through fiscal 2004, federal spending on nondefense research nearly doubled after inflation, from slightly more than $30 billion in FY 1976 to roughly $55 billion in FY 2004.

But that era included periods of spending cuts, budget analysts note. Some of the increases during the period merely made up for lost ground. Last year saw a slight decrease from the previous year's high. Moreover, during the past 10 to 15 years, much of that increase has gone to the National Institutes of Health, notes Tobin Smith, senior federal-relations officer for the Association of American Universities. Physical sciences and engineering research did not grow at the same pace. [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly attributed to Smith a statement that suggested a cause-effect relationship between those two trends.]

And while the overall budget for federally funded research and development (R&D) is rising by 0.1 percent, far short of inflation, there are more losers than winners, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Today's tight research budgets come in an era that's far different from the recent past, analysts say. At home, members of Congress support the need for a strong research base, but this time lawmakers have little leeway to restore money the administration wants to cut, notes Dr. Killeen. That's because the US budget is awash in red ink, posting a record deficit last year of $412 billion. The Congressional Budget Office earlier this year projected a cumulative deficit of $1.3 trillion between 2005 and 2015.

The administration is trying to tame the deficits through cuts in nondefense discretionary spending for the third straight year. But other countries that spent much of the past half century getting back on their feet after World War II and the military buildups during the cold war, are coming out from America's scientific shadow.

All have noted the US example that robust research budgets yield significant economic benefits, notes Diana Hicks, who heads the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. "This is the wrong time to take the eye off the ball."

Since 1996, Western Europe has consistently outstripped the US in the number of scientific papers published, she notes. In 2001, it topped the US in engineering papers published as well.

In Asia, countries from China to Singapore to India are making heavy investments in R&D and in domestic graduate programs at universities that can churn out world-class researchers.

As if to underscore the point, this week Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wrapped up a visit to India by inviting his country's longtime adversary to join forces with China to become the 21st century's center of gravity for computer hardware and software.

China comes in third in R&D spending after the US and Japan, after adjusting for inflation and the relative purchasing power of each country's currency, Dr. Hicks notes. More telling are the growth rates over the past decade, she adds. R&D budgets in China, Singapore, and Korea have grown far faster after adjusting for inflation than have budgets in the US or Japan.

The point hasn't been lost on US corporations, which increasingly are outsourcing R&D to labs overseas. The shift testifies to the lower cost and high quality of scientists and engineers overseas, notes Jules Duga, who analyzes corporate and federal R&D spending trends for the Battelle Laboratories in Columbus, Ohio. The balance of this "intellectual" trade still favors the US, he says. But the pace of outsourcing has been growing recently.