How to Wreck Science

April 26, 1995|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington -- While Republicans in Congress are talking seriously about shrinking the government, they've come up with a bad idea of what to do with the scientific bits and pieces that they want to salvage from the demolished departments. Ironically, the solution calls for creating a new department, the U.S. Department of Science, to serve as homebase for the uprooted agencies.

To outsiders, this may look like another version of the old game of rearranging deck chairs on an ill-fated liner. But there's a lot at stake here that goes beyond the narrow interests of obscure offices of government. The universally acknowledged strength of American science is in large part a result of its organizational and financial diversity -- or perhaps even chaos might be a better term.

But sprawling and disordered as it is, the scientific enterprise reliably produces the knowledge and trained specialists necessary for industrial prosperity, good health, environmental purity and much more desired by the American public.

There's no czar or boss in what is conveniently referred to as the ''scientific community.'' Though Washington provides most of the money for science, it comes from a bewildering array of departments, agencies and offices, each with its own staff, goals and ways of doing business. The money goes to university laboratories, the government's own research centers and industrial research organizations. The present-day system originated in patterns that date back to the end of World War II. It is complicated, but it works.

The thinking about a Department of Science starts with plans to abolish several departments and agencies with important research responsibilities. Prominent among these are the Department of Energy, a mainstay of physics and nuclear research, and the Department of Commerce, which works closely with high-tech industry. Also on the block are the Department of Education, which supports curriculum research and other pedagogical studies, and perhaps the Department of Labor, strong in the social sciences.

The departmental plan, backed by Rep. Robert Walker, R-Pa., chairman of the House Science Committee, would scoop up all those science agencies and bunch them with a few others. These include the National Science Foundation, which finances university research outside the health sciences, and the parts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that conduct research. Additional candidates for inclusion are the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. National Biological Service, if they survive termination vows by the budget cutters.

The organizational mosaic of science defies easy explanation and offends devotees of bureaucratic tidiness. Congressional budget minders fret about the possibility of duplication. Actually, that's quite rare, but often beneficial when it occurs, since it multiplies the chances of success in dealing with difficult research problems. Congressmen should remember that the legislative process entails duplicate efforts by the House and Senate.

Muddled as it may appear, the science system possesses several important virtues that are not readily visible. A grant-seeking scientist with a quirky idea that flops in one agency can appeal to others. And with congressional jurisdiction over the science agencies distributed among many committees, there's no risk of the roulette of chairmanships putting the whole batch in the unloving hands of a flat-earther.

The proposed Department of Science would eliminate that healthy fragmentation. One cabinet secretary would preside over the whole show, while one chairman on each side of Capitol Hill would preside over the provision of money. Chairmen, of course, can be outvoted but rarely are.

If Congress goes ahead with a departmental demolition derby, the wisest solution for the surviving parts would be to scatter them throughout the federal establishment, rather than concentrating them under one roof. Small is not necessarily beautiful, but mammoth would be a colossal mistake for science.

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

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