NSF cuts university grants, NIST halts chemical lab programme

The disappointing budgets allocated to US government science agencies are beginning to cut into chemistry.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is to award fewer grants to university chemists and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is to end a key nanoscience programme.

’We’re squeezed and unable to implement the plans that we had,’ Luis Echegoyen, who directs NSF’s division of chemistry, told Chemistry World. ’From a 10.2 per cent increase for chemistry at the NSF originally projected in the President’s request to Congress last February, to the final 1.5 percent appropriated, we have had to make many adjustments.’

"We’re squeezed and unable to implement the plans that we had" - Luis Echegoyen

That will mean fewer grants for university researchers, he says, and the agency is also to cancel several key initiatives that were due to start up in fiscal year (FY) 2008. For example, the NSF’s flagship ’Centers for Chemical Innovation’, which address high-risk, high-impact basic chemical research problems, face cutbacks.

Echegoyen’s division planned to fund two at the advanced ’Phase II’ level of around $4 million annually for five years, but now may fund none.

’I hope to be able to make one award this year for $4 million, but that will put a lot of strain on my budget,’ Echegoyen says. His division will also halt new competitions for Undergraduate Research Collaboratives - a programme that seeks new ways to expand undergraduate chemistry research and build research capacity at participating institutions.

Meanwhile, NIST is to cancel the exploratory research programme for FY08 at its Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory (CSTL). The programme funds small research projects to find new measurement methods and has developed procedures for characterizing nanoparticles, as well as a non-destructive technique for imaging cancer-seeking nanoparticles that are tagged with drugs.

’If we are trying to push forward in areas like nanotechnology, this CSTL programme is critical for us to develop new and standardized methods,’ states Catherine Hunt, the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) immediate past president. 

The ACS and other physical science lobby groups are hoping that Congress will pass a supplemental FY08 budget in April, or earlier, that can fill the shortfall facing science agencies. The figure being floated for this possible supplemental is $500 million.

"What we are looking for is not a ramp up, just continuity" - Catherine Hunt

’What we are looking for is not a ramp up, just continuity,’ says Hunt, who sits on ACS’ Board of Directors and is currently a senior official at Rohm and Haas. ’You can’t build a career or research programme on rhetoric; you need that funding and the assurance of moving forward.’

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA