Underfunding now a threat to national security, ACS says

The US Department of Defense’s science and technology spending is ’inadequate’ to address security threats, the department’s own chief technologist has warned in an internal memo accidentally posted to the DoD website last month. 

In the memo, John Young, the director of defence research and engineering, urges Robert Gates, the department’s director, to bolster funding to selected priority areas by nearly $10 billion - including a proposal to direct $300-500 million annually toward ’foundational science’. Biosensors, nanosensors and plasmonics are among the areas that need greater funding, he says. 

The correspondence was released less than two weeks after a White House R&D budget guidance document for fiscal year 2009 identified above-inflation increases in DoD’s high-leverage basic research as a ’significant priority’. 

The Young memo and the White House guidance are positive signs that the Bush administration is thinking about DoD’s basic research account more strategically, the American Chemical Society says. The society is warning that the department’s consistent under funding of basic research now poses a a significant national security threat. Such work, the ACS argues, is essential because it facilitates the development of technologies used by the military today, such as night vision devices, precision-guided munitions and the Global Positioning System. 

"Declines in funding for the S&T program over the past several years . have harmed the ability to recruit and retain talented researchers in defence-related areas" - Catherine Hunt

’If the department is not engaged sufficiently in cutting-edge research, it risks being caught unawares of new developments with potential military applications,’ said Catherine Hunt, the president of ACS. ’Declines in funding for the S&T programme over the past several years, especially in the basic research programmes, have resulted in reduced awards to universities, which in turn have harmed the ability to recruit and retain talented researchers in defence-related areas.’ 

ACS is calling for a 10 per cent increase to the department’s basic research budget, taking it to $1.7 billion. The society would like to see DoD support more research on detectors that can, for example, remotely sense chemical and biological agents. It also wants spending on pharmaceutical modes of action, particulate air transport and dispersal, as well as chemical and biochemical binding. 

Meanwhile, the US Senate has proposed a $1.5 billion budget for DoD basic research in an authorization bill approved on October 1. Although the figure is 5 per cent above the White House’s request, it also represents a cut of 4 per cent from the current level. Negotiations between the House and Senate must take place before a final bill can be sent to President Bush for action. 

Rebecca Trager is US correspondent for Research Day USA