Too Important to Be Left to Scientists

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

July 13, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington. -- America's high temple of science has produced a simple answer to a question that politicians have pondered since World War II, when Washington became the nation's principal financier of serious research: How much is enough?

The response, from the National Academy of Sciences, is a formula that would be tantamount to an unrestricted draw on the U.S. Treasury.

In this deficit-laden period, the issue of scientific funding is especially poignant because of the basic insatiability of science. Every breakthrough reveals new paths for inquiry, while powerful, and extremely expensive, research tools increase the frequency of breakthroughs.

The federal government now spends about $75 billion a year on research and development, including some $15 billion on basic research, which is the ground-breaking stuff, mainly situated in universities. These are world-leading sums, unsurpassed by any other nation or combination of nations. Even so, growth has drooped in recent years, and lack of money thwarts many ambitions of the American scientific community. A sense of neglect is rampant among researchers.

Given the bleak economic prospects, should the United States aim to excel in all the sciences? Or should it pick and choose among the possibilities, concentrating funds in some fields, while neglecting others?

The answer of the National Academy of Sciences is that the U.S. ''should be among the world leaders in all major areas of science.'' But in those areas that are important for national goals, the federal government should underwrite ''clear leadership.'' The Cold War used to motivate federal generosity toward the sciences, the academy says, but now it's time for Washington to recognize international economic competition, the environment and other problems as the new basis for strong support of science.

The details are spelled out in a new report, ''Science, Technology and the Federal Government: National Goals for a New Era,'' by a blue-ribbon committee of scientists and administrators, most of them from universities. Election to the 130-year-old academy is second only to the Nobel Prize in the scale of scientific honors.

Under this beguilingly plain formula, federal officials, with the assistance of expert advisers, would designate the areas in which neck-and-neck status with other countries would suffice and those in which top position would be the goal.

World leadership would be the standard in fields of research, such as physics and biotechnology, that underpin important industries. The U.S. would also strive to be No. 1 if a ''field so captures the imagination that it is of broad interest to society'' -- such as astronomy, the Academy suggests. Finally, ''clear leadership'' would be the goal in fields of science that radiate broad influence. An example is molecular biology, which has found applications in health care, agriculture and industrial processes.

In all other cases, the scientists suggest, the U.S. could settle for being up there with the world's best, though not out in front.

The assessment of U.S. standings relative to the rest of the world would be entrusted to panels of experts who would compare national performances in, say, chemistry or mathematics. Government backing would be adjusted, as needed, to assure proper funding of the U.S. effort. In an unprecedented gesture to economy, the academy scientists suggested that support could be reduced and shifted to needy areas if scientists were excelling in a field deemed to be of lesser importance.

If adopted, the formula would equate with fiscal nirvana for American science, which could always point to some laboratory somewhere abroad as having or threatening a jump ahead in some field. And it may be expected, too, that no field of science will settle for a designation short of ''clear leadership.'' As a recipe for civil war in the scientific community, the proposal would be difficult to beat.

More important, the academy's plan would create an entitlement program for science by essentially removing scientific funding decisions from the political process. If the designated experts decide that a field of research is essential for national well-being, then the money must flow, according to this scheme. Whose experts, how much money and at the price of what are not discussed in the plan, which is described as a ''framework'' for further discussion.

Finally, the proposed formula smacks of nationalism at a time when science is increasingly conducted on an international basis. In fact, at the time the report was issued, the U.S. government was pleading with Japan to help pay for the American Superconducting Super Collider.

All in all, the mandarins have produced a misbegotten scheme. The financing of science is important, but so are other claimants on the federal budget.

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

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