Science's Problem Is Priorities, Not Funds

January 16, 1991|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON. — Washington Is science in America sinking from fiscal neglect? That's the impression created by the unrestrained lamentations of leading scientists besieging Washington for more money. Heed their cries. But also understand that much of their distress is of their own shortsighted making in collaboration with their politician friends.

Currently in the vanguard of discontent is Nobel physicist Leon M. Lederman, impresario of a gloomy report that concludes that ''research in the United States is in serious trouble.'' Mr. Lederman, president-elect of the 135,000-member American Association for the Advancement of Science, presented his report January 7 at the elite, high temple of American research, the National Academy of Sciences. The two organizations are at the heart of the science establishment.

The Lederman report's title, ''Science: The End of the Frontier?'' is a takeoff on ''Science: The Endless Frontier,'' the optimistic 1945 blueprint that set American science on its world-leading course.

The latter-day version draws its conclusions from a random survey of 250 researchers at 40 universities, most of whom said things are tough out there. Their ''overall tone,'' Mr. Lederman concludes, ''is one of deep concern, discouragement, frustration, and even despair and resignation.''

The reality, however, is that science in America has never been bigger, richer or more productive. What it suffers from is an unrestrained appetite for doing all things possible, to the neglect of deciding what's most important and less important. For that we can blame politicians, who just want a share of the scientific action for the home folks, and scientists, who merely want to pursue their intellectual interests.

The result is that, while the volume of federal money is unprecedented, it is spread so thin that many scientific projects exist in a financially undernourished state, and research time is crimped by the urgencies of chasing support. The irony of it is that American spending on basic scientific research exceeds that of Western Europe and Japan combined!

How did we get into yet another of these recurringly proclaimed crises when research budgets are bigger than ever, even when inflation is factored in? Federal spending for medical research, for example, now stands at over $8 billion a year, a ''real'' increase of nearly 50 percent in a decade. The Lederman report says that overall, science's purchasing power has increased by only 20 percent since 1968, but comparisons of then and now are tricky, given the vastly increased productivity of modern computers and other advanced scientific equipment.

The main problem of American science is that most ideas for research are considered equal, particularly if they require big, expensive facilities. The mammoth atom smasher destined for Texas, the Superconducting Super Collider, started with a cost estimate of $4.4 billion four years ago, and is now at $8 billion, and rising fast.

One of the juiciest pieces of pork on the federal inventory, the Collider has so far eluded the deficit cutters. The space station has zoomed from $8 billion to $37 billion. In terms of what else could be accomplished scientifically with that money, are they worth it? Both science and politics shun that question.

Toting up all the big research projects on the federal agenda, the Congressional Research Service reports that they will consume $160 billion in construction and operating costs over the next decade. Averaged per year, that's perhaps only 20 percent of all government spending on research and development. But the financially ravenous mega-projects are coming along just as tight lids have been set on future federal spending.

The Congressional study notes concerns that ''the growing commitment to big science'' is coming at the expense of grants to individual investigators, the backbone of the United States research enterprise.

Science could make good use of more money, but so could many other worthy enterprises on the financially parched American landscape. The difference between science and many of them, however, is that Washington is consistently generous to research.

Taking its good fortune as the natural order of things, the research establishment prefers to cry for more, rather than establish priorities. Evasion is the easy way, but it invariably leads to the dismal paradox of crisis amid plenty.

Mr. Greenberg publishes a newsletter on science and policy.

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