Science in Decline

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

January 19, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- At the intersection of science and politics, E David is rated very savvy. In 1971, as an accomplished researcher in underwater acoustics at the elite Bell Laboratories, he was recruited for thankless duty as science adviser to President Richard Nixon.

Mr. David later went on to several top jobs in high-tech industry, ++ including the presidency of Exxon Research and Engineering. Now a successful international industrial consultant in a private practice based in New Jersey, Mr. David, as always, cheerfully espouses a faith in science and technology as humanity's ultimate weapons against ignorance and poverty.

But also he's sure that, as things are shaping up in our national economy and on the world scene, the great American research enterprise is bound for an era of unprecedented shrinkage that will bring massive job reductions among scientists, engineers, and technicians.

His fellow elders of science have often complained of an enforced austerity in research affairs, principally from skimpy growth in federal grants. But what he's talking about is more on the order of devastation in the nation's fount of industrial creativity. An audience of Washington technocrats recently emerged visibly dejected upon hearing Mr. David's assessment

of the future.

That analysis is based on powerful trends already at work. Service industries -- health care, entertainment, financial and government services -- have become the growth centers in the American economy, while manufacturing is merely holding its own. Service industries, however, make very limited use of research. They perform little of it themselves and don't acquire much from outside sources.

Manufacturing, on the other hand, has traditionally relied heavily on research for inventions and development of new products. But under economic duress, the zip has gone out of industrial research. It remains high for pharmaceutical drugs, computers and software. But overall, R&D expenditures by industry have become stagnant, keeping up with inflation, at best, but often falling behind. The staggering IBM remains a giant in computer research, but is planning substantial cuts in that category.

Meanwhile, universities, the other great locale of research, are cutting staff and programs to stay afloat. Research flourishes in many parts of academe, but growth and, consequently, scientific adventurousness, are scarce.

Mr. David forecasts that the ''national investment in R&D will shrink by 25 to 30 percent over the next 10 years.'' The decline, he says, will encompass university and industrial laboratories, as well as those owned by the government, many founded for military purposes that have faded away.

Despite projections of shortages of scientists and engineers, less money will mean fewer jobs, he adds, and unemployment will be worsened by the abundance of scientists in the former Soviet Union eager for assignments from American organizations minuscule wages.

This gloomy scenario coincides with the growth of substantial scientific capabilities in industrially competitive nations in Asia. Japan long ago staked out a presence in science and technology. Now, South Korea and Taiwan are on the way. Previously dependent on imported research, their manufacturing industries are increasingly sponsoring their own.

The American research enterprise overshadows all of them combined in size, scope and accomplishments. But it's the trends that count over the long run, and they're on the way up while we're declining.

Mr. David says that, given the bleak financial future, the scientific community must face up to a disagreeable task that it has long shunned -- the establishment of priorities. When money was gushing from government and industry, scientists deemed all fields of research equally worthy and rejected the nasty business of making choices. But a sense of reality is breaking through.

A departing report from President Bush's council of scientific wisemen urged American universities to avoid squandering scarce resources in futile efforts to excel in all fields of science.

''Our research-intensive universities must adopt more highly selective strategies,'' they asserted, adding that ''The expectation that, somehow, new resources will become available sustain initiatives must be viewed with skepticism.''

Candidate Clinton promised a rejuvenation of industrial technology, with Vice President Gore leading government-wide efforts toward that goal. The trends cited by Ed David are gaining power. Whether they can be reversed is by no means certain.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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