WASHINGTON — Scientists and university leaders are seeking $500 million in emergency spending for basic research in the physical sciences, an investment they say will save jobs, the economy and the nation's standing in the international scientific community.
In visits to congressional offices this week, academic leaders said they were shocked to discover that the spending bill Congress passed in December left out more than half a billion dollars in basic research money that President Bush had requested and lawmakers said they supported.
"It's an attention-deficit disorder in a way," said Duke University President Richard Brodhead. "In the end, the attention went away and something else took its place."
Cut from the congressional bill were funds for national laboratories, an international nuclear fusion program, high-energy physics research and nanotechnology. The result, the academic leaders said, has been a cut in research hours, the end of some research programs that depended on federal grants and delays in the construction of laboratories.
Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman warned Congress this month that more than 500 scientists and technicians could lose their jobs or their university support as a result of the cutbacks. Another 500 won't be hired, he said.
The research affects projects as massive as an international high-energy physics lab in Europe and as local as a few hundred pine trees routinely sprayed with carbon dioxide in a forest near Duke University.
In Menlo Park, Calif., the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center plans to lay off 225 workers. Another 200 layoffs are expected at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, some 40 workers may be reassigned.
Nationally, reduced funding for grants in basic energy science could slow research in fusion, hydrogen production, solar energy and thermoelectronics, Bodman said.
"We've experienced a setback in the United States," said Penn State University President Graham Spanier. "Higher education and national competitiveness are the victims. We are losing scientists because of these cuts."
Penn State nuclear physicist Mark Strikman said the cuts were frustrating because of the rhetoric scientists usually hear from politicians.
"The problem is, in public, nobody says anything against funding for science," Strikman said. "But behind closed doors ... they cut the money."
University leaders hope Congress will include $500 million for research in an emergency supplemental bill that is expected to pass this spring. About $300 million of that would go to the Department of Energy, while the rest would go to the National Science Foundation.
Still, the request could be a tough sell.
Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., warned the group that congressional leaders will be wary of opening the supplemental bill to special requests such as theirs.
But Biggert, who has two national energy labs near her district, said she supported their cause.
"Research and development doesn't happen overnight," Biggert said.
Supplemental bills traditionally have been for immediate funding, including spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or emergency payments in the wake of natural disasters.
"I know it's an uphill battle," Spanier said. "But it's our obligation on behalf of colleges to make our case."