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President Reagan on Basic Research

Richard M. Jones
Number 102 - August 26, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Congress returns to Washington early next month, and will have high on its priority list the FY 2012 appropriations bills.  This fall, important decisions will be made that will affect the funding and conduct of scientific research in the coming years. 

As Congress looks ahead to the funding of this research, a look back at what President Ronald Reagan said in an April 2, 1988 Radio Address to the Nation is of interest.  At that time, the President warned “Federal funding for science is in jeopardy because of budget constraints.” Among those topics covered in the President’s comments are the value of basic research, lasers, high energy physics, superconductivity, the SSC, the space station, and biotechnology. 

“My fellow Americans:

“Passover and Easter are festivals of hope. That's why this weekend is a good time for all of us to reflect on the enduring importance to mankind of hope and faith in the future. And nowhere do our hopes take more visible form than in the quest of science.

“Science has grown, and with it, the fascination it holds for all of us. But as the pursuit of science has become ever more nationally and even multinationally funded, it has also become more expensive. The problem here is that science, unlike a bridge or an interstate highway or a courthouse, has no local constituency. Today, when we're witnessing some of the most exciting discoveries in the history of science, things similar to the breakthroughs associated with Einstein, Galileo, and Newton, Federal funding for science is in jeopardy because of budget constraints.

“That's why it's my duty as President to draw its importance to your attention and that of Congress. America has long been the world's scientific leader. Over the years, we've secured far more patents than any other country in the world. And since World War II, we have won more Nobel prizes for science than the Europeans and Japanese combined. We also support more of what is called basic research; that is, research meant to teach us rather than to invent or develop new products. And for the past 40 years, the Government has been our leading sponsor of basic research.

“The remarkable thing is that although basic research does not begin with a particular practical goal, when you look at the results over the years, it ends up being one of the most practical things government does. For example, government-sponsored basic research produced the first laser. Today, less than three decades later, lasers are used in everything from microsurgery to the transmission of immense volumes of information and may contribute to our Strategic Defense Initiative that promises to make ballistic missiles obsolete. Well, I think that over the past 50 years the Government has helped build a number of particle accelerators so scientists could study high energy physics. Major industries, including television, communications, and computer industries, couldn't be where they are today without developments that began with this basic research.

“We cannot know where scientific research will lead. The consequences and spin-offs are unknown and unknowable until they happen. In research, as Albert Einstein once said, imagination is more important than knowledge. We can travel wherever the eye of our imagination can see. But one thing is certain: If we don't explore, others will, and we'll fall behind. This is why I've urged Congress to devote more money to research. After taking out inflation, today's government research expenditures are 58 percent greater than the expenditures of a decade ago. It is an indispensable investment in America's future.

“Let me tell you about just a few of the many projects we'll fund this year. This year we'll begin work on the great grandchild of those particle accelerators that have meant so much to our economic growth. It's called the superconducting supercollider. And it will harness the galloping technology of superconductivity, so we can explore subatomic particles in ways we've never been able to before. We'll also continue developing the space station. When it's in orbit, the space station will let us perform once impossible experiments in the weightless and sterile environment of outer space and understand our world and universe. And we're developing new technology to allow man eventually to journey beyond Earth's orbit. Astronaut Senator Jake Garn and others in Congress have given the space program the support it needs to once again reach for the stars.

“Meanwhile, back on Earth, we will be pursuing breakthroughs in biotechnology that promise to revolutionize medicine, agriculture, and protection of the environment. We're working on new ways to spread the seeds of Federal research. Working with universities across the country, we have established 14 engineering research centers devoted to basic research on emerging technologies. And we're planning 10 to 15 new science and technology centers to do the same thing in the fields of general science. All of these centers will work with industries so that what they discover can quickly lead to new and better and internationally competitive products. All of this and more is before Congress now.

“Some say that we can't afford it, that we're too strapped for cash. Well, leadership means making hard choices, even in an election year. We've put our research budget under a microscope and looked for quality and cost effectiveness. We've put together the best program for the taxpayers' dollars. After all, the American tradition of hope is one we can't afford to forget.

“Until next week, happy Easter and Passover. God bless you.”

Citation: John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project [online]. Santa Barbara, CA. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=35637.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095