Tight funds will sharpen focus of US research, says top scientist

Budget cutting will require legislators and the scientific community to work closely in establishing American research priorities, says Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences. In an interview with the Monitor's natural science editor, Robert C. Cowen, Dr. Press also spoke about the growing emphasis on defense research, and about scientific relations with the Soviet Union and China. The following are excerpts from that discussion. Is science adequately funded in the budget?

American science is at a peak of activity and progress that's unprecedented. Now all of this is happening at a time when the nation faces a $200 billion deficit. And so the question that's on everybody's mind is what will be the resources under these conditions available for science, because everybody agrees that with the opportunities available, marginal increases will reap big returns. . . .

I would say this: At a time of budgetary stress, it is more important than ever before to get sound advice about the allocation of scientific resources from those at the frontier. . . .

So I would like to see more congressional testimony, more external advice from outside groups to executive branch officials pointing up the opportunities in these fields.

Are we not getting as much outside advice as we should?

Let me say it this way. If the whole process -- executive branch and Congress -- leads to very, very constrained budgets, then we need more discussions than ever before. . . . It seems to me that the key government officials responsible for science and technology [are] rather open. I've found them quite open and accessible -- not just to me, but to the whole scientific community.

Are you happy with the budget's emphasis on defense?

Well, I would say that the consensus of scientists I normally talk to . . . agrees with the bipartisan group that seems to be developing in Congress for some reduction in defense and reallocation into other areas. . . . It's not exclusively academia. It's also industrial scientists. . . .

Do you find any concern about the Department of Defense funding basic research?

No. Everybody likes it. They remember the early history when the Department of Defense had some of the best taste in identifying some of the best people and funding them. So they support those increases. They only hope the increases aren't diverted by program managers out of basic research into more applied research. There's great concern about that. It's not only happening now. It happened in the previous administration, to the distress of leading officials [when Press was science adviser to President Jimmy Carter].

You see, there are thousands of program managers. And it's hard to know what they're doing on a project-by-project basis. But an assessment seems to be that much of the money which is [budgeted for basic research] gets diverted into what has to be [recognized as] more applied research, contrary to the intentions of the administration -- this one and the preceding one.

Is there concern about secrecy creeping in along with this defense money?

The secrecy issue goes beyond the Defense Department basic research budget. It has to do with reauthorization of the Export Administration Act. It has to do with proposed [export] regulations in sensitive areas of science.

But I would say the situation is much better today than it was back in 1981, when proposed regulations were rather restrictive.

What is your feeling about East-West relations in science?

Well, let me answer that in a general way. The Soviet Union, in terms of number of scientists and investment in science, is a major scientific power. . . . It's in our interest to know what's going on in the Soviet Union. And the best way to know what's going on in the Soviet Union is by visitors -- it's an exchange, a cooperation. I'm now talking about nonstrategic fields of science. I'm not talking about technology transfer. I'm talking about basic science.

Nevertheless, a large number of scientists -- not only American, but in the Western world -- have expressed great concern about what's happening to the dissident scientists, the refusniks, the nonconforming scientists.

Until those problems are cleared up, it will always inhibit the degree of cooperation. . . .

It could be a very significant cooperation in the interests of science of both countries if these issues [were to] disappear.

Are they likely to disappear?

There is no evidence as of now. But one has to be optimistic, or at least one has to exploit that possibility, and pull back if it doesn't and go forward if it does.

Will these issues interfere with cooperation in space?

There are areas of cooperation which are the province of government. We have a bilateral science-and-technology agreement with the Soviets that our government operates. And it involves many of the agencies. I'm certain that our government -- and also the preceding administration -- controls level of participation, level of activity, on the basis of such things as Afghanistan, Poland, and human rights.

And so science is not exempt from the environment, the ambience, the atmosphere. And human rights is an important part of that atmosphere.

Do we feel that atmosphere is better now?

I don't think the administration has publicly enunciated its attitude in this matter and has publicly stated it's ready to start a cultural or scientific agreement. I think they're discussing it.

But is the situation better today than a year ago? Well, there are arms talks in Geneva. That's positive. There's no progress with respect to the refusniks and [Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist Andrei] Sakharov. That's negative. OK. Poland may be a little bit better. That's positive. Afghanistan is terrible. That's negative. And so on.

So, I'm sure that this assessment, taking all of this into account, is being made on a continuing basis. But I haven't heard what the executive branch's current conclusions are.

What is your feeling on cooperation with China?

That's going exceedingly well. The Chinese are moving very rapidly in so many different areas it's hard to keep up with them. You know, in economics, they're moving toward a free market. They're entering the world of commerce. They're making agreements with American companies. They're acquiring science and technology. They're sending 10,000 to 15,000 students to the United States.

I'm pleased a lot this can be traced back to the early prenormalization of relations this institution had with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Did you sense any of this movement with China during the Carter administration?

No question about it. It was the end of the Cultural Revolution. It was the emergence of Deng Xiaoping with his advanced views, with his different views. It was the Chinese announcement that science and technology is one of their four modernizations, so to speak. That means it's one of the highest priorities within the government.

The rebuilding of the universities, the reorientation of the Academy of Sciences, stressing science rather than political purity -- all of these things were taking place at that time. . . .

What's your sense of the problems that science is facing?

The great success story of American science in the past 30 or 40 years rests in the research university -- a peculiarly unique American institution. It doesn't exist anywhere else in the numbers [in which] it exists here. For many reasons, the research universities are in trouble. And that means basic science has some problems. . . .

I don't mean necessarily that these are federal problems. They might be internal problems, investment problems, maybe decisions that they themselves made. But we have to understand the nature of the distress and see what the appropriate roles of the private and public sectors are and address those issues.

. . . There's lots happening. And what it all means and how it will come out, I think we'll know within a half year. -- 30 --{et

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