Decline threatens US science

In the opinion of many US scientists and technologists, our country is being set solidly on the road to scientific and technological decline.

Caught between escalating federal deficits and shrinking ''discretionary'' funds, which can absorb budget cuts, much important research and technological development is being undermined, to say nothing of neglecting the education of future scientists and engineers.

This shows up both in general statistics and in specific program areas.

To begin with, the proportion of US gross national product invested in research and development (R&D) has dropped 20 percent since 1965. Meanwhile, Soviet R&D investment has grown 21 percent, Japanese investment has risen 27 percent, and West German investment has increased 41 percent. France now is engaged in a major program to increase its R&D investment rapidly.

The outlook for a turnaround in the US is bleak. Between 1980 and 1985, entitlement programs such as social security are to grow from $291 billion to $ 410 billion. Military expenditures should rise from $136 billion to $292 billion. But the so-called discretionary part of the budget, which includes civilian R&D and which is most easily cut, is expected to drop from the $117 billion level of 1980 to $66 billion in 1985.

It is not just basic science in such fields as astronomy, planetary research, or fundamental physics that is suffering. Aeronautical research is being cut back at a time of increased European and Japanese competition. Solar energy and synthetic fuel development is curtailed. The Reagan administration argues that private industry should pick up such things. But historically it has been quality federally supported research that has made many of the breakthroughs in such areas.

When this situation was discussed at a meeting of scientific leaders in Washington in March, the mood of the sessions was gloomy. But of all the dangers the participants saw, the withdrawal of student grants and loans alarmed them most. Paul Gray, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains this hits especially hard at graduate students. In an editorial in Science, he recently warned: ''In the long run, declines in the quality and quantity of graduate enrollments will impair the ability of the research universities to conduct basic research. The most likely result will be a reduction in our nation's capacity to innovate, to lead in science and technology, to compete successfully in international markets, and to secure our defenses.''

This is likely to become a major political issue. Scientists and university presidents are beginning to organize lobby groups. Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, who looks more and more like a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is stumping the country talking up ''the crisis in R&D in America.'' Major scientific societies are expressing alarm.

US science and technology still are healthy and vigorous. But this strength now seems in jeopardy.

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