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Congressional cuts in defense budget jeopardize research

STANFORD -- Although overshadowed by the O.J. Simpson case and the Whitewater affair, the last several weeks have seen a series of political moves and counter moves of critical importance to major research universities such as Stanford.

The action began in mid-June when word began leaking out around Capitol Hill that the House Appropriations Subcommittee chaired by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) was preparing to recommend that the President's request for $1.8 billion in Pentagon support for university research be slashed by $900 million, or 50 percent. The subcommittee's recommendations were approved by the full appropriations committee and were included in the final bill that passed the House on June 29 by 330 to 91.

Word of this highly unusual measure spread rapidly through the academic research community. Stanford President Gerhard Casper, who was scheduled to testify at Supreme Court nominee Stephen Breyer's Senate confirmation hearings, took some additional time while in the Capitol to meet with members of Congress to urge restoration of this research money. Provost Condoleezza Rice, who had just returned from a trip to Moscow, made a quick turnaround and jetted to Washington, D.C. There she met with a number of members of the Congress and the administration to argue in behalf of the critical role that university research has played a critical role in national security.

"Protecting the future is very important. It is not appropriate for us to simply ask the government to support us. We must demonstrate that university research is worthy of support because of what it has given to the armed services," said Rice. "What has really made a success of our armed forces is the fact that our research base is really broad. Important breakthroughs have come not only from military but also from civilian research. Breakthroughs in lasers, optics and microelectronics, among many others, are what have made our military so sophisticated and given it the technological edge that helped us win the Cold War and the Gulf War."

Although the specific cutback was for Defense support of basic research, many observers see this as part of a bigger picture. Currently, about 10 percent of federal support for basic research comes through the Pentagon. The rest is funneled through civilian agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. In recent years, federal support for civilian science has been dropping, says Rep. George Brown (D-Ca.), chairman of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee and a longtime supporter of science funding. "The future of the universities hinges on [reversing this trend], and they are on the side of the Lord," Brown said in a telephone interview.

Efforts by Casper and Rice were reinforced by those of Dean of Research Charles Kruger, who also traveled to Washington, D.C. Professor of chemistry Richard Zare, who has helped organize a recent series of high-level conferences on the future of the physical sciences sponsored by the National Research Council, wrote a letter to a number of congressmen explaining why such a large cut would have a "devastating impact" on science, mathematics and engineering research in this country.

John Hennessy, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and a number of fellow computer scientists have also been active in trying to explain to congressmen and their staffers the way in which university research benefits both the nation's economy and its national defense. Robert Cannon, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, who previously served as chief scientist for the Air Force and assistant secretary of transportation, also wrote letters in which he stressed the negative effects that such a cut would have on science and engineering students. According to a National Science Foundation analysis, Pentagon funding supports about 44 percent of the nation's graduate students in computer science, 41 percent in electrical engineering and 25 percent in mathematics.

Administrators and faculty members from all the top research universities in the country also lobbied against the research funding cuts. In addition, James C. McGroddy, president of International Business Machines Inc. and Paul Allaire of the Xerox Corporation, chairman of the Council on Competitiveness, among others, weighed in on the side of the research community.

Much of this lobbying effort was directed toward the Senate Appropriations Committee working in parallel with the House. On July 12, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Ca.), responding to a joint letter from Casper and fellow presidents of the University of California, University of Southern California, and the California Institute of Technology, sent her own letter and then spoke directly to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Subcommittee on Defense of the Appropriations Committee. Boxer urged that Inouye's powerful subcommittee restore the appropriations that the House had cut. A few days later, she also signed another letter that requested Inouye support a "balanced plan of reductions that does not penalize one particular segment" of the Department of Defense research program. The letter was organized by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), and signed by 19 others, including Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.). Feinstein, who is a member of the appropriations committee, supported the restoration of $821 million of the $900 million House cut, an action that was approved by the committee on July 29. The bill went to the floor last Friday, Aug. 5, and was the subject of debate Monday and Tuesday, until the Senate took up health care. Scheduling for the final discussion and vote is uncertain.

Once the bill has passed the Senate, a final appropriation amount will be worked out in a joint conference committee. Informed sources predict that the final cut will be somewhere between $100 million to $200 million. "Murtha will have to walk away with something. The question now is how much," said one staffer.

Such assessments are based on the interpretation that the House subcommittee selected the dramatic $900 million figure primarily to send a message. Murtha, in a press conference following the action, reportedly said that the cutbacks were "unavoidable" due to tight spending caps and that too much of the research funding was going for administrative costs and overhead at universities. He maintained that they were not trying to stifle research, but to "bring it under control." Still, there is considerable speculation about deeper possible motivations. One interpretation is that the subcommittee was sending a message to the Defense Department that it had to cut a major weapons system. Another is that the move was a shot aimed at Rep. George Brown (D-Ca.), head of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee, who has been campaigning against earmarking, the practice of congressmen to designate funds for research projects in their states and districts that have not received funding through the peer review process. Yet another is that it was a signal to the university community that the period when DOD's basic research budget has been shielded from cuts has ended.

Provost Rice feels that genuine concern about the defense budget was the major factor - a view shared by Larry Horton, director of government and community relations. "We all must realize the extraordinary strains in the budget that Congress must deal with," Rice said. Campus officials have realized for some time that, with the end of the Cold War, the university community faces serious problems in maintaining federal support. So the fact that the appropriations were cut did not come as a surprise, but the severity of the cut was beyond anything they had anticipated, Rice said.

"The fact that a 50 percent cut could be proposed and passed the House in the way it did, without debate, indicates to me that support for science is a mile wide and an inch deep," Zare said. He sees this as the first in a series of tests of the nation's resolve to invest money in programs that have a long-term, rather than an immediate, payback. If the nation fails this test, he predicts further erosion in support for science on other fronts.

Throughout this whole affair, Zare has been disappointed that so few members of industry have spoken out publicly in behalf of university science. "There is a critical outstanding question: Does the industrial community buy the argument that this kind of research contributes to their bottom line? If they don't, funding will go down."

According to Hennessy, one of the most difficult things to explain about the value of basic research is the long lead time between new ideas and their application. One example that he has cited in his lobbying efforts is the Pentagon's Advanced Research Project Agency program to develop very large integrated circuits or VLSI. "We received the first funding from ARPA in 1978. Three companies - SUN, Silicon Graphics and MIPS - all came out of that," he said. The process, however, was long and drawn out. Silicon Graphics had a demonstration product in 1978. They had a demo of their research project in 1980 at Stanford and started the company in 1982. It wasn't until 1993 that the President and Vice President visited Silicon Graphics and not until 1994 that the company made the cover of BusinessWeek magazine.

According to Washington insiders, Murtha was surprised at the strength of the response that his action generated. During discussion of their respective bills, both Murtha and Inouye remarked that they received more correspondence on the university research cuts than any other issue in the $244 billion defense appropriations bill. As a result, knowledgeable sources consider it unlikely that such a draconian cut will be proposed again. Instead, they expect constant pressure to reduce defense research by those who may think that research is important, but not "mission critical."

The current crisis may have galvanized a strong response but, in general, "university lobbying efforts haven't been very effective," said Rep. Brown, a long-time supporter of basic research. "By themselves, I doubt if they have the clout to reverse the 50 percent cut."

It will take more than simply spending more time in Washington, D.C., to guarantee continued government support, Brown sa id. First, universities must get their own houses in order, reduce their overhead on research to reasonable levels. Scientists, whose sole object is adding to human knowledge, who allow their universities to charge 50, 75 or 100 percent of their research budgets to overhead are in an indefensible position, he said, adding, "They can't be saints if they are sinning a little all the time."

Brown also strongly recommends that university scientists rethink the broad nature of their enterprise and begin giving greater emphasis to what they can do to improve the health of society. "Today, we have spent the most time, money and effort on the human health scientists. We have the best health scientists in the world, creating the best machines, but we have the most screwed up health care system. Scientists have to spend more time looking at the way the whole system works and finding ways to make it work better," Brown said.

Academic science continues to have a number of powerful political allies. On Aug. 3, for example, Vice President Gore released a report "Science in the National Interest" that outlines the Clinton administration's commitment to make science and technology a "top priority" in future budgets. The report called for a shift from military to civilian support for basic science. It sets a goal of increasing the percent of the gross domestic product being spent on nonmilitary science by both government and industry from a current 2.6 percent to 3 percent.

In addition, the administration announced the members of a new Committee of Advisers on Science. Members with Stanford ties include: David A. Hamburg of the Carnegie Corporation, a Stanford trustee; John A. Young of Hewlett-Packard, a former trustee; and Sally K. Ride, the astronaut who served as a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control before moving to the University of California- San Diego.

Despite such backing, however, recent events have reinforced concern among many in the science community about the strength of congressional and public support. As Zare puts it, "It shows that it is possible, with one bill, to undo a partnership between the government and universities that has taken decades to build up, a partnership that has been difficult to achieve, a partnership that has been unquestionably in the national interest."



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