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Mixed feelings on Obama budget

12 Apr 2013

Photonics representatives welcome proposed boost for NSF, but other key areas face cuts.

President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 has received a mixed response from representatives of the photonics community in the US.

While overall highlights include an emphasis on manufacturing, clean energy and a 9% increase to “non-defense” research and development funding over 2012 levels, plans for major cuts to healthcare are set to have an impact on research spending by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In addition, Department of Energy (DOE) section of the budget singles out the National Ignition Facility (NIF) for cuts to its investment after the failure to demonstrate the hoped-for fusion with ignition at the giant laser site last year.

Responding to the proposals, SPIE’s CEO Eugene Arthurs said: “While the budget continues this adminstration’s unflinching support for science and recognition of the importance of photonics to our future economy and health, I have some concerns.”

Overall, says SPIE, the budget proposes some $143 billion for federal research and development, equivalent to a 1 percent increase over 2012 levels but effectively a real-terms cut. Behind the headline figures, the picture is, as always, more complex.

Behind the headlines
For example, at $7.6 billion funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF) is set at more than 8% above the enacted 2012 level. The DOE’s Office of Science also benefits, with an increase of nearly 6% to $5.1 billion.

Obama’s budget proposes $372 million for fundamental research that is directly relevant to future clean energy technologies such as solar power generation and energy efficiency, and would make permanent the tax credit for the production of renewable electricity.

Metrology center of excellence the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is also earmarked for $754 million of support, with $2 billion set aside for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellite systems, satellite monitoring of sea levels and solar storms.

“In these times of constraint, it is very encouraging to see proposed increases for NSF, DOE science, and NIST, and the investment in the NOAA earth observations program is overdue,” added Arthurs. “But it is disturbing to see both the NASA and NIH research and development budgets reduced, in real terms.”

A strong proposal, says Arthurs, is the recently announced Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, which could receive $100 million in funding if Congress backs the idea. “With recent advances in optogenetics and brain imaging, we think the BRAIN initiative very timely,” he said.

Call for more applied research
But Arthurs would have liked to see more emphasis on applied research, and also pointed out that that there would be a knock-on impact from the cuts to defense research: “The decrease in real terms, compared with 2012 budgets, for defense basic and applied research and advanced technology development is worrying,” he said.

“We need to better understand the deep cuts in defense development when this is where our security has come from, and also where for decades there has been much spillover into our tech industry.”

Although the presidential budget did identify $1 billion to be spent on a network of 15 manufacturing innovation institutes across the US, Arthurs highlighted a contrast with the increasing recognition of cross-cutting, enabling technologies such as photonics elsewhere in the world.

“Canada and the European Union are among regions that have established policies focusing priority on applied research, and for good reason,” he said. “Applied research is concerned with creating real value through solving specific problems - creating new energy sources, finding new cures for disease, and strengthening the security and stability of communication systems.

“Its metrics are improvements in the functioning of society as a whole and in the quality of individual human lives, not those of laboratory animals, and in patents and new inventions that spark economic growth, not just journal citations.”

National Photonics Initiative
Alongside the Optical Society (OSA), and other organizations in the photonics space, SPIE is lobbying in Washington, DC, to support the proposed National Photonics Initiative (NPI), an idea that reflects a focus on applied technology.

In its own response, the OSA largely welcomed the Obama budget proposals and urged Congress to back the plans. CEO Liz Rogan also highlighted the NPI, saying: “Investments in science and technology fuel economic growth, and the optics and photonics industry in particular is a leading source of high-quality advanced manufacturing jobs. The NPI, serving as an umbrella organization, could help direct resources to where they are most needed.”

Recommendations for the priorities of the proposed NPI are currently being finalized by a committee comprising members of the various societies involved, with an announcement expected in the coming weeks.

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