Funding for Physics

Federal funding is nothing but good

It’s often easy to take for granted the critical role that research conducted on the behalf of the United States Armed Forces has played in the various technological breakthroughs of the last several decades.  Since its inception in 1958, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been responsible for a wide array of groundbreaking innovations, including the internet—the derivative of DARPA’S Advanced Research Projects Agency Network—the Global Positioning System, and Proto 2—a prosthetic arm capable of being controlled by one’s thoughts. The Department of Defense is also at the forefront of research and investment in alternative fuels and other forms of green technology, investing in solar panels, fuel efficient Humvees, and smart microgrids.

In fiscal year 2011, DARPA contributed to 13 percent of all expenditures made by the physics department, using money that came from federal sources. We recognize that in some quarters, the imprimatur of the Defense Department renders these projects categorically suspect. However, given the proven social utility of military research, we believe that it would be a mistake to treat the word “military” as a pejorative and that we should instead celebrate this influx of federal support for the work being done by the physics department here and at other universities.

Such celebration is particularly merited since the Defense Department does not distinguish between projects solely on the basis of applicability. There is little to no evidence suggesting that these funds are being used as leverage by the Defense Department to promote a specific military agenda. Physics professor Gerald Gabrielse, for example, has said that he would never accept funds for research that might be used for questionable purposes. In fact, there is currently no identifiable, practical military purpose for federally funded projects like Gabrielse’s antimatter research, funded in part by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, or for physics Professor Amir Yacoby’s work on quantum computers and sensitive magnetic sensors, a beneficiary of DARPA. Rather, it is the potential for future applicability that drives the military’s decision-making regarding the doling out of funds for academic research. Defense Department funds do not give the military the ability to dictate the subject of research—only its application.

Furthermore, it would be imprudent to begrudge a physics department that is heavily dependent on federal support a source of funding on the basis of a baseless bias against projects associated with the United States military. As Gabrielse put it: “Defending our country is an honorable and good thing. I regard taking government funds as a sense of trust.”

Of all the external funding that the department receives, a staggering 93 percent comes from the federal government in some form or fashion. Of that 93 percent, a substantial portion is provided by defense-related agencies. In the words of physics Professor Isaac F. Silvera: “The government is our lifeline to carrying out fundamental research.” The research conducted by the physics department—and, indeed, scientific research in general—is an unambiguous benefit to society; we should therefore welcome the federal government’s much-needed support.