WASHINGTON -- One of the less-remarked inanities in government is the bountiful budget still assigned to military research, though the United States holds an unassailable lead in technology for war and no other country is a serious competitor.
In this troubled and uncertain world, there's no argument against the case for the best in armaments. But when the United States possesses unchallenged superiority in advanced weaponry, why are we still financing military research at levels little below the height of the Cold War? This misdirection of resources is occurring at a time when industrial prowess, rather than military might, is the essence of national security.
The Soviet Union's formidable military-research establishment collapsed when the old regime went under, and is so impoverished that the United States is heavily financing the breakup of Russian nuclear weapons under bilateral arms-control agreements.
Japan and Germany, second and third, respectively, to the United States in economic strength, concentrate virtually all their research money on civilian goals. The contrast in spending priorities is striking. Last year, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. government devoted 55 percent of all its research money to military purposes. The German government spent 8.5 percent of its research budget on armaments; Japan spent 6 percent on the military.
A distant second to the United States in the military research derby is France, which spends 33 percent of its money in that category. However, the wisdom of this priority is a matter of keen debate in French industrial and scientific circles.
Dollars are almost constant
In this country, the military's share of federal research expenditures has indeed declined, from two-thirds of the total in the mid-1980s to a bit more than half at present. But, as the pie has grown bigger, the dollar amounts for the military have changed very little in recent years.
In 1989, $37.5 billion went into the Pentagon's research and development budget. Last year, the figure stood at $34.4 billion, and the new budget voted by Congress provides an increase of about $1 billion.
On the civilian side of Washington's research ledger the news is not as good. Driven by ideology that says the government should leave industrial research to the private sector, the Republican Congress has voted to terminate federal support for long-shot projects that might have a big marketplace payoff. The rationale for federal finance in such cases is that the risks are too great for private investors, but a technological home run would produce widespread economic benefits.
No way, say the Republicans, and they have eliminated these programs, mainly in the Commerce Department. They have also terminated a Pentagon program aimed at developing ''dual use'' technologies -- those that can serve military as well as civilian purposes. The budget cuts coincide with a major retreat from long-term research by big high-tech industry. Pressed by Wall Street for profitability, industry is shunning the long shots and looking for quick returns from its laboratories.
Republican kind words about university research -- which is mostly of the basic kind -- have resulted in only minor reductions in funds or slight increases in some cases. Not bad, when elsewhere, the ax is swinging. But after several years of standstill budgets, the zip and verve have gone out of academic science.
The professors tend more than ever to be cautious in picking research projects, fearing that a misstep or an outright failure might blight their chances the next time they apply for scarce grant money.
In the quality of its tanks, planes, ships and other armaments, the United States leads the world by a wide margin. Constant improvement is desirable. But there would be no risk in slowing the pace and redeploying a good deal of that Pentagon research money to where it could do a lot of good -- on the economic and scientific battlefronts.
Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a Washington newsletter.