Millions for Fortune 500 mendicants

February 13, 1997|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton budget for research has got it all wrong -- again.

It proposes to spend money in areas already saturated with industrial funds. It plans to blow away billions on the purposeless space station and a make-work scheme for idle nuclear-bomb laboratories. In the process, it's neglecting the real gold mines of science, the universities.

The first thing to understand about today's economics of research and development is that the federal government has receded to a junior role in the overall enterprise. Industry wields the biggest bankroll for R&D -- about $113 billion this year, while all the government research agencies together are authorized to spend $73 billion.

But that government figure includes $40 billion for defense, which means that in civilian research, industry outspends government by more than three to one. And industrial R&D has been expanding at a healthy pace, while federal funding has been sluggish and losing ground to inflation.

A wise strategy, then, would have Washington concentrate its scarce research money on important fields that fail to attract substantial industrial funds, such as basic research in universities. Don't count on it.

Consider automotive research. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler spend more than $10 billion a year on research. Nonetheless, the Clinton budget provides $273 million to help these Fortune 500 mendicants collaborate on developing super-efficient vehicles in a corporate handout known as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. Virtually all other civilian research programs are flat in the budget, but this partnership is slated for a 7 percent increase.

Private venture capital for high-tech start-up firms is plentiful these days. But the administration is running its own venture-capital operation, the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program, budgeted for $275 million -- an increase of $50 million over this year's figure. The grant recipients in this welfare program include AT&T, IBM and other heavy spenders on research.

Meanwhile, the International Space Station stumbles on with an annual budget of $2.1 billion and fading justifications for its existence.

Fading justifications

As a base for scientific research? Space scientists say they can get more science out of far less costly ventures. Industry has shown scant interest in the claimed advantages of manufacturing in zero-gravity. The Pentagon wants no part of the space station. And the foreign-policy rationale is sinking as the Russians fall behind in carrying out their part of the project. The surviving explanation is that the space station is being built to acquire experience in building a space station.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy is in the budget for the Stockpile Stewardship Program -- essentially hush money for nuclear-weapons builders who opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signed last year by the president. With nuclear explosions forbidden under the treaty, the stewards will employ other means to assure the vitality of the stockpile, including a special new toy, a $900 million device known as the National Ignition Facility. The need for this costly monitoring of the nuclear arsenal has been disputed by alumni of the bomb laboratories, to no avail.

The Clinton administration's expressions of reverence for science in the universities cannot be faulted. In announcing the budget, the president's Assistant for Science and Technology, Dr. John Gibbons, declared: ''University-based research is key to America's future; it provides new knowledge and new technology, while at the same time training the next generation of scientists and engineers.''

The numbers, however, do not match the rhetoric. Government is by far the largest financier of science in universities, dwarfing industrial support, which is around 7 percent of the on-campus total, despite big increases by some firms. But in recent years, federal spending for university science has been stuck at around $13 billion spread over 150 research universities. The new budget provides for merely a 2 percent increase, which means a loss to inflation.

There's ample money in the federal research system. But too much of it is going to the wrong places.

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of the newsletter Science & Government Report.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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