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Why US scientists fault Reagan budget plans for them.

By Robert C. CowenNatural science editor of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 1981



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.

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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.