Cold War Is Over, But Cold War Budgets Linger On


February 26, 1991|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON. — For an excursion through warped priorities, look at the Bush administration's plans for the billions of dollars the federal government will spend next year on research and development.

From no less an authority than President Bush, the Cold War is over, the gulf war is expected to be brief, and the major long-term challenge facing America is industrial competitiveness. Science and technology, he has repeatedly said, are indispensable ingredients of our economic strength. So, guess what? Defense is budgeted for 60 percent of all the money Washington will spend on R&D next year.

The Pentagon's share is scheduled to rise by 14 percent, one-third faster than the growth of civilian R&D. The biggest item in the R&D budget is $4.9 billion for Star Wars, though it's increasingly regarded as a technological pipe dream.

While warfare priorities have abruptly shifted to conventional weapons, the budget calls for boosting nuclear-weapons research by 6 percent next year, to a total of over $2.7 billion. That's the same amount requested for the civilian National Science Foundation, which supports research in our cash-strapped universities.

With few exceptions, university laboratories are becoming decrepit for lack of money. The nationwide backlog for renovation and construction has been estimated at over $10 billion.

The neglect of academic research facilities has been deplored by Mr. Bush's science adviser, D. Allan Bromley, formerly a professor of physics at Yale. ''In many universities,'' he said, ''the buildings are beginning to literally fall down around the ears of the people doing the work; the equipment is often older than the students and sometimes the faculty.''

What's being done about that problem?

Answer: The Bush budget cancels the $20 million program that Congress established two years ago to repair and build university laboratories.

The elimination of that sum, as inadequate as it is, was accompanied by a smart-alecky explanation from the Office of ++ Management and Budget. Noting that universities must certify that they possess suitable facilities when they apply for federal research grants, OMB observed that the construction backlog ''has not had an apparent effect on the ability of universities to accept federal research funds.''

Scientists working solo or in small groups have been praised by Mr. Bush's budget planners as the backbone of imaginative and successful science. Some increases have been budgeted for them, but the really big shares are allotted to the so-called mega-projects. The space station, for example, is budgeted for $2 billion, while the big atom smasher, the Superconducting Super Collider, is slated for $534 million, nearly $200 million more than its current budget.

Mr. Bush has proclaimed himself the ''education president,'' a role in which he has invested a good deal of inspirational rhetoric, including a pledge that American students will be first in the world in science and math by the year 2000. However, talk has been more abundant than money.

The great wasteland of science and math education is at the pre-college levels, where there's a dearth of properly trained teachers and educational materials. By very generous definitions, federal help for elementary- and high-school science and math will total $514 million this year. The president's budget calls for increasing that to $660 million -- for the whole country for all of next year. That's less than a day's bill for Desert Storm.

The kindest thing to be said about the Bush science budget is that it's an improvement on the Reagan era, when military research hogged nearly 75 percent of the government's R&D spending.

There are some indications of good intent in the president's plans for science and technology. For example, as short as the Science Foundation's budget may be, it did receive a plump percentage increase in a difficult budget year. And important and long-neglected agriculture research is slated for respectable growth.

Nevertheless, the White House's thinking about research remains mired in the old priorities of the Cold War.

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report.

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