Washington — For United States scientists, the outlook for basic research is brightening. President Reagan's fiscal 1985 budget projects nearly $8 billion for this activity - a healthy 10 percent boost. It's part of an overall $53 billion research-and-development (R&D) budget that is itself 14 percent bigger than last year.
Moreover, presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II is as lyrical as any university professor in preaching the virtue of creative scientific exploration as an essential source of strength for the nation.
This is a dramatic turnaround from the early days of the Reagan administration, when there was no science adviser and when research funding was reduced.
Indeed, the outlook for scientists would be positively sunny if it were not for the shadow the deficit casts over all aspects of government funding.
But, as noted by Willis Shapley, who heads a budget analysis program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the massive budget deficit gives the proposed research funding an air of unrealty. He told a recent AAAS colloquium on the subject that ''it isn't a budget in a normal sense . . . it's more a statement of a problem.''
With a freeze on many other expenditures, Mr. Shapley warned, that R&D is vulnerable. It is a tempting area for cuts in spite of a general recognition of its importance within the administration and Congress. Thus, he said, the President's budget should be taken as a baseline from which changes are likely to be made over the next few months.
Given that uncertainty, the R&D budget does embody a strong - and to the scientific community welcome - commitment to the sciences. There was considerable unease among US scientists a few years ago when Mr. Reagan had not yet appointed a science adviser and when the Office of Management and Budget seemed reluctant to fund nondefense, basic study. That particular concern has largely been dispelled. Scientists may argue over the administration's priorities, but, as noted by AAAS executive officer William Carey, Dr. Keyworth ''makes a very effective case . . . for the President where science is concerned.''
That case emphasizes the importance of basic research as a generator both of new knowledge and of skilled scientific and engineering talent. It severely downplays development - such as projects to demonstrate new energy technologies - within the nondefense R&D funding.
Keyworth likes to display what he calls ''my favorite picture.'' It is a chart running from 1978 to 1985 showing a drastic drop in development, which had dominated civil R&D funding, while basic research now has become the major factor. He also points to strong growing support for research at colleges and universities - support that had been stagnant or declining. About half of the nearly $8 billion basic-research money in the budget is targeted this way. There is new money for instrumentation and facilities at universities to upgrade what become obsolete. And there is support for advanced computing facilities, which are badly needed.
In short, as Keyworth explains, the administration's wide support for basic science reflects its larger emphasis on funding essential activities that enhance the nation's ability to compete commercially and strengthen its defense. The generation of new knowledge and training of technical talent is seen in this light. At the same time, the cuts in development in such things as solar energy equipment reflect the administration's desire to let private industry, rather than the government, pick up the tab for projects that lead to commercial products.
This is the administration's case to which Mr. Carey referred. But while the support this philosophy has generated for basic science is welcome, many of the experts at the AAAS colloquium expressed concern over the way it is distributed.
To begin with, it includes a strong buildup in defense R&D. Research funding for universities by the Department of Defense (DOD) now is about equal to that from such civilian sources as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. There is concern that this could warp basic research priorities. Also, there is fear that scientific papers based on DOD-funded research may be subject to censorship even though the research itself is nonsecret basic science.
Then, too, the emphasis on research as an element of national strength tends to favor physics, chemistry, and engineering over such fields as anthropology or archaeology.
And as pointed out to the colloquium by Rep. Stan Lundine (D) of New York, many representatives and senators would like to see substantially more support for high school science and mathematics teaching and for university computing facilities than the budget provides.
Despite such reservations and the uncertainties caused by the deficit, federal support for the sciences is likely to remain strong. Representative Lundine, chairman of the House Task Force on Industrial Innovation and Productivity, says he believes there are many areas of agreement between Congress and the administration on research support. He sees strong backing for that support in Congress. Thus the dismay with which the US scientific community once viewed the Reagan administration's attitude toward research has given way to a cautious but apparently well-founded optimism.