President Reagan's administration has understandably resisted special interest pleadings in setting its priorities for funding US science and technology. However, where the national honor might be compromised, there would be wisdom in thinking again.
Such is the case with decisions to pull out of certain international activities. The most prominent of these is the proposed abandonment of the US half of a joint space science mission -- the Solar Polar mission -- for which the European Space Agency (ESA) is the other partner. Less visible, but also potentially damaging, is the proposed cancellation of US participation in the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).
The Solar Polar mission, in which twin space craft were to be sent over the north and south poles of the sun, has been a cause celebrem for a couple of months. Any illusion that the European partners would merely grumble and accept the US position seems to have been shattered. Strong formal protest has been made to the US Department of State while prominent European space officials openly question the good faith of the United States.
ESA members -- who include Britain, France, and West Germany -- have devoted a substantial part of their space science budgets to the mission in the belief there would be a large payoff in knowledge about the sun and its space environment. If the sun cannot be observed simultaneously from both poles, as originally planned, this payoff will be significantly reduced and the Europeans will have wasted their money. Yet this is just what is implied in the US decision not to supply one of the two spacecraft as promised. It is only the latest, and most serious, of several US backouts from joint space projects. As such, it seems to be a last straw.
This has serious implications for the US, as Mark R. Chartrand, Executive Director of the National Space Institute, has pointed out to Congress. ". . . joint space ventures with other nations is not a case of the United States giving aid to less advanced programs," he explained. "In fact, in some areas of endeavor, foreign organizations are ahead of us, and we would like to have the benefit of their experience."
Not only would the US benefit from such experience, but sharing the costs of expensive space missions would be increasingly important. These benefits now are at risk.
The losses of pulling out of IIASA would be less tangible. IIASA is a "think tank" outside Vienna shared by some 15 nations, including the Soviet Union. There, East and West still can sit together and study major world problems. In fact, the first such study, which deals with world energy supply, was recently published. To save $2.4 million a year in dues, the administration is thinking of quitting. This would disappoint our friends and give the Soviets a propaganda opportunity.
Neither of these international pullouts is final. There is time to reconsider whether the short-run savings are worth the damage done to the good faith and credit of the United States.