WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Along with other dependents of the federal treasury, the great American research establishment is likely to be drawn into the budget carnage now shaping up on Capitol Hill.
But rather than being a catastrophe, the confrontation with financial adversity could be a long-overdue liberating force for science.
It could be -- if the knife-wielding legislators pause long enough to realize that there's plenty of money for science and technology in this country, but a lot of it is being frittered away on politically entrenched, obsolete programs.
With the Cold War long over, why, for example, does the Department of Energy maintain two separate billion-dollar-a-year laboratories for designing and testing nuclear weapons? The question is increasingly puzzling, since the United States has discontinued the manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons.
But the laboratories, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Livermore, California, are still there, agitating to get back into the bomb business, and also trying to reshape themselves into job shops for commercial industry.
Given their high overhead costs, notoriously complex administrative habits, and traditions of working in deep secrecy, the civilian aspirations are akin to trying to put a tank into taxi service.
A year-long study on the future of these and other archaic labs financed by the Department of Energy is due in February, but recommendations for closure have been made before without effect. Good sense would call for shutting down at least one of these relics of the nuclear arms race and redeploying the money to where it would do the most scientific good -- by and large, university-based laboratories, which advance knowledge and train the next generation of scientists and engineers.
At the height of the Cold War, the Pentagon hogged some 75 percent of all federal spending for research. Though that share has declined, defense continues to receive the major portion of federal research spending -- despite the Clinton administration's vows to achieve a 50-50 civilian-military balance in R&D.
The numbers are startling, particularly in comparison to the spending patterns in other industrial nations.
A compilation by the Congressional Research Service shows that in 1993, Washington provided $40 billion for the Defense Department's research programs and $28 billion for research in civilian agencies. The politicians proclaim that national security is now based on economic competitiveness rather than military muscle, but the Pentagon still gets nearly 60 percent of the government's research money.
A small part, about $500 million a year, is indeed made available by the Pentagon for so-called dual-use research projects, i.e., those can serve both military and civilian markets. But the great bulk of the defense research budget is focused on military requirements remote from commercial needs.
In contrast to the weapons orientation that still pervades the American government's research priorities, the German government spent $9 billion on civilian research programs and less than $2 billion on military projects.
The affluent Japanese government put even more emphasis on civilian work and less on the military -- spending a mere $1.4 billion on defense R&D and nearly $20 billion on civilian projects.
The great strength of American science is in basic research, the quest for fundamental knowledge. Universities, the main sites for this kind of science, are the training grounds for the scientists and engineers who go into industry and turn knowledge into profitable products.
But in recent years, university science has encountered hard times. Some of the financial difficulties arise from lack of prudent management practices. Others come from the ever-rising costs of sophisticated scientific equipment.
And then there's the inherent insatiability of the scientific enterprise, which can never have enough money. Rising above all these difficulties, however, is the fact that when economists poke into science, they generally conclude that it's a good investment for the country.
The budget-cutting derby under way on Capitol Hill needn't allow any special dispensation to protect that investment in scientific capability and knowledge.
All that's needed is a shift of money from yesterday's priorities to the urgent needs of today.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.