The scientific community in the United States accepts the fact that its federally funded enterprises must take their fair share of budget trims. However, there is continuing concern over what seem small but strategically ill-advised cuts in certain National Science Foundation programs.
Elimination or severe curtailment of NSF support for science education and for the social, behavorial, and economic sciences could do damage to US scientific strength out of all proportion to the money saved, many scientists say. Their concern is heightened by the perception that these cutbacks reflect ignorance of the crucial role of science education and because of an ideological distaste for so-called "soft" science.
The fact that the cuts were made, and continue to be defended, without seeking competent scientific advice sharpens this perception. As of this writing, President Reagan had yet to appoint a science adviser. Also, he has allowed the Office of Management and Budget to revamp the NSF budget without consulting the National Science Board --the 24-member citizen group which, together with the director, legally constitutes the foundation.
Although taken aback at this oversight, US scientific leaders were inclined to attribute it to the settling-in confusion of a new administration and to mute their public criticism. Now their patience has worn thin and their sense of alarm increased.
In the May 1 issue of Science, National Science Board chairman Lewis M. Branscomb is publishing a memorandum of concern which the board had earlier sent to the President and to the congressional committees that deal with the NSF budget. IT is accompanied by a statement of the board's legal status as an integral part of the NSF management. and it pointedly notes that the board had been excluded from the NSF budget rearrangements.
While this attempt to exclude scientists from painful budget decisions has been galling, the actual results have not been all that distasteful for the most part. The physical and biological sciences will continue to be well supported even though there will be considerable belt-tightening. But the devaluation of NSF's educational role and of the social and economic sciences is another matter.
The NSF's educational budget is being phased out. The Reagan budget would cut educational funds from about $70 million this fiscal year to about $10 million in fiscal 1982, leaving just enough for existing fellowship commitments. President Carter had budgeted $112 million. A $75 million program to help universities upgrade antiquated teaching equipment also would be eliminated. Plans to help women and minorities enter science or engineering are to be scrapped.
The administration argues that the NSF program is lost in the far larger educational expenditures of other agencies and that its function would be better left to states and local communities. However, scientists believe the NSF has been a catalyst in upgrading science education both at precollege and at university levels. They see no one else ready to fill the gap which NSF's withdrawal from the field would leave.
Allan Bromley, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has summed up scientists' feelings by saying: "To expect scientific and technological progress while abandoning efforts at improving science and technological teaching in our schools is illogical and a disservice to the nation's interests."
"Such a plan, if carried out, would deal a severe setback to US science and technology, and to the country's industrial, commercial, and military strengths, " says the American Chemical Society board of directors, even while acknowledging that their special fields of chemistry and chemical engineering have not suffered especially from funding cuts.
Even the National Science Board, while trying to go along with the administration as far as high school science is concerned, challenges the budgetary logic. "While the board acknowledges that solutions to science education problems at the precollege level must be accomplished by private citizens and local institutions, the board is convinced that the NSF has an indispensable catalytic role it should not abrogate, even if the level of investments is severely curtailed," the Branscomb statement says.
The apparent vendetta against social sciences seems even more disquieting. This has the smell of prejudice to many US scientists. They see a reaction against those sciences that provided some of the data used by former administrations to promote social programs and that some members of the present administration find repugnant.
William D. Carey, AAAS executive officer, sums up the concern. A former staffer in the Office of Management and Budget, he urges colleagues to show restraint in reacting to cuts in US science funding, while pointing out the need for strong action to meet the present economic challenge. Now in an editorial in the May 1 issue of Science, the AAAS's official organ, he says:
"That the federal government is not about to abandon science and technology is clear enough. In the aggregate, the provision for support of research and development appears robust. . . . For the first time in the postwar partnership of science with government, [however,] summary judgment has been passed on the legitimacy of particular fields of scientific inquiry without the benefit of due process. The social and economic sciences have been scored as flunking tests of need and worth on the scale of government fiscal values.
"Even more troubling than the star-chamber procedures followed in reaching this choice is the implicit judgment that science has nothing useful to say about contemporary dilemmas and issues. . . .
"But there are some realities that cast a different light on the need and worth of the social and economic sciences. As far ahead as one cares to look, for example, the United States will face close encounters with risks domestic and foreign, including those of surprise and miscalculation. There is little to show that we are prepared for them. . . . As for improving productivity in the nation's economy, it should be clear by now that prayers and good works will not suffice in the absence of much greater understanding of economic behavior than we have at hand. . . .
"The charge being leveled at the social and economic sciences is that they are esoteric . . . public faith that legitimizes theoretical and applied research in the physical and life sciences has been withheld because the benefits are less amenable to measurement. . . . Isolating the social and economic sciences means inflicting damage on integrity of all scholarship. . . ."
There are some signs that Congress may be hearing the protests. The house Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Technology has voted toadd $26 million to NSF biological, behavorial, and social budgets and has increased the educational directorate funds to $75 million. It is not yet known what other House committees involved or what the House as a whole will approve.
In the Senate, the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, chaired by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah, is taking up the NSF budget. Hatch has been sympathetic to many of the now restricted programs. However, the committee is constrained by a Senate resolution that would limit budget increases, in this case, to only about $15 million.
Another possibility for rescuing the educational and social-behavoral science programs would be to reorder priorities in other areas of the NSF budget and transfer funds.