More than 50 Nobel laureates are urging Congress to spare the federal science establishment from the looming budget cuts known as the sequester, saying that research has endured years of budget reductions and that additional cuts could endanger “the innovation engine that is essential to our economy.”
The open letter was written by Burton Richter, a 1976 Nobel laureate in physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California, and organized by the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington. The group is making the letter public on Wednesday.
The Nobel laureates said their concern was not for themselves, since they would have the upper hand in any competition for scarce federal dollars, but for younger scientists who might be poised to produce the breakthroughs of tomorrow.
“We urge you,” they wrote Congress, “to keep the budgets of the agencies that support science at a level that will keep the pipelines full.” The next generation, they added, will determine “our economic vitality” in the future.
Washington is the pre-eminent sponsor of basic research in the United States, disbursing billions of dollars to universities, contractors and federal centers. The Defense Department receives the largest share of the overall research financing, followed by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Energy Department.
Between 2009 and 2012, the federal financing of research and development dropped 18 percent, to $140.6 billion from $172.5 billion, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The science association says the budget cuts would lower this year’s research and development budget an additional 6 percent, to about $131 billion.
The letter from Dr. Richter and the other laureates gave no budget numbers but said the overall federal science budget “has steadily fallen over the years, while our rivals in Europe and Asia invest more.”
It added that traditional partisans in Washington had agreed on the importance of federal financing of long-term scientific research.
President Obama stressed this importance in his State of the Union address, the letter said, adding that Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican majority leader, emphasized it in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute.
“The agreement exists,” the letter said, “because of recognition that this sort of research fuels the innovation engine that is essential to our economy.”