Houston — President Reagan's science advisor, George Keyworth, looked on approvingly, while industry and academia embraced each other in Houston this fall.
Dr. Keyworth told some 300 researchers drawn both from major universities and from top oil and chemical companies that the two groups must replace years of ''isolation'' with far closer cooperation. Speaking as director of the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy, he said policy changes are being made to ''maintain our technological leadership'' in the face of ''the new and obviously serious technological threats of Japan and Western Europe and even the Soviet Union.''
Replying to concerns that Reagan administration budget cuts will undermine vital research, the nuclear physicist said that the government's ''massive'' role in funding basic research has been ''good for pure knowledge, but not so good for industrial needs.'' The answer, he says, is for industry to play an increasing role in funding the basic research carried out by university scientists.
Dr. Keyworth complimented the Houston meeting's host, the two-year-old Council for Chemical Research, for starting ''to knock down some of those walls between industry and universities.'' But he said more must be done ''to get greater interaction of industry in the nation's basic research processes.''
All parties will benefit, Dr. Keyworth said, from changes. He called on university researchers to set priorities so that today's ''limited funds'' can be targeted on the most important areas. He called on the corporate world to recognize ''that concentration on short-term goals, and neglect of longer-term research, has left many technology-dependent industries poorly positioned for future competition with foreign industries.'' He said his aim is ''to link the driving curiosity that's characteristic of good scientists to some important pragmatic needs of society.''
Another nuclear physicist, David Saxon, president of the University of California, endorsed the Keyworth call for increased industry-university cooperation. He pointed to major research being carried out at such universities as Harvard, Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, and Washington in St. Louis as evidence that industry funding is working well.
But Dr. Saxon warned that universities must maintain their independent role and ''avoid even the appearance of undue influence by a particular firm or industry.'' He also said industry cannot ''make up for diminished federal support of basic research.'' He noted that ''industry presently supports around 3 percent of all research, basic and applied, conducted at universities,'' while the federal government supports about 75 percent. ''No partnership between universities and industry can remotely act as a substitute for that indispensable federal presence,'' he said. Federal funding must dominate, he said, because basic research is a vital, but high-risk, undertaking with ''no guarantee that a marketable product or technique will result.''
But James B. Henderson, president of Shell Chemical Company and a Shell Oil Company director, said universities can increase the likelihood of research leading to marketable products and new technology. He said greater industry-university cooperation is needed to turn research breakthroughs into revenue-producing end products as quickly as possible.
Dr. Henderson called specifically for research into more cost-effective catalytic processes to release massive US energy reserves locked in heavy crude oil and coal. He said new chemicals and genetic engineering hold the promise of greatly increasing agricultural productivity while new composite materials ''tailored for very specific end uses'' may soon lead to such products as an all-plastic automobile engine.
Along with suggesting research priorities with near-term social benefits, Dr. Henderson warned university researchers against giving in to the temptation ''to develop specific products from basic research in order to gain funds.'' The Shell executive expects industry to play an increasing role in funding university research. In return, he expects university professors to let industry deal with ''the challenges of successful business development.''
Industry, in fact, may try to guarantee that university researchers don't go commercial. Private industry now provides nearly 25 percent of the $40 million annual research budget for Carnegie-Mellon University. Mr. Saxon, the University of California president, said that in return for major funding of a robotics institute ''CMU has agreed to sign over to its industrial sponsors patent rights to any inventions that ensue as a result of research.''