Effort needed to strengthen America's scientific muscle

AFTER 24 years with the House Science & Technology Committee -- serving eight of those years as chairman -- retiring Democratic congressman Don Fuqua of Florida has distilled his assessment of America's scientific enterprise into a ``one liner.'' ``Our science establishment is a national treasure and the envy of most of the world,'' he says.

He'd like to keep it that way.

Drawing on his committee's 18-month comprehensive study of what's right and wrong with American science, he has some 62 recommendations for maintaining scientific vigor. These conclusions are his own. But they strongly reflect the substance of the committee's official report, which should be ready in draft form next month.

As he has presented his views in breakfast talks and seminars, the retiring congressman has poked at attitudes and traditions that now hamper American science.

Take the so-called academic pork barrel, for example. Financially pressed universities sometimes bypass normal grant procedures and appeal directly to senators and representatives to get money to replace worn out faciities. Most of the scientific establishment has denounced the practice, saying such projects should compete for funds on their merits. Without condoning the practice, Representative Fuqua says he thinks that, in most cases, these appeals are justified by real need.

Decaying buildings and obsolete equipment are crippling research and teaching in many universities. The way to stop pork barrelling, Fuqua says, is to meet this legitimate need. He suggests that a $10 billion refurbishing program, with half the funds coming from private industry, would do much to relieve this drag on American scientific capability.

Fuqua also is critical of traditional university structure. Academic departments are strongly focused on specific disciplines such as chemistry or physics. Research support by a system in which specialists judge the merits of proposals is likewise narrow gauge. Yet most of the major scientific challenges lie at the juncture of several fields. The acid rain problem involves chemistry, physics, economics, engineering, manufacturing, and many other things.

America needs a new system to encourage interdisciplinary research, Fuqua says. The traditional academic research structure inhibits it. ``We can't live in the era of the 21st century and do things as we did in the 20th century,'' he observes.

The departing congressman thinks the nation at large, as reflected in Congress, also needs fresh outlooks.

Big projects, such as the space station, are hard for the United States to carry out alone. International cooperation is needed. For that to work, Americans must be willing to give up some autonomy and control in such projects. ``Buy America'' provisions, such as those Congress wrote into the NASA budget authorization that President Reagan recently vetoed, are counterproductive. There must be true partnership. This will require a shift in American attitudes, Fuqua notes.

He also challenges Congress to be realistic and recognize that the national well-being requires a determined thrust into space. That means a methodical program of exploration and colonization. This means acknowledging that a well-founded space program must be a major priority for use of federal funds. And to be effective, that funding must be consistent from year to year to sustain a program that reflects well-established national priorities. That's a commitment no administration or congress has been willing to make for nearly two decades.

Fuqua considers these and many other conclusions he's drawn as ways to fine tune a scientific system that is basically strong. He sees no need for such major restructuring as setting up a federal department of science and technology. To reduce the present diversity to a single super agency would, in his judgment, be ``the worst thing we could do.'' But he does urge stronger, more consistent support of the basic research that generates new knowledge, especially at universities.

Fuqua says he hopes that the fruits of the committee's study ``will serve as a national resource in guiding us toward thoughtful decisions'' in strengthening America's scientific muscle. But given the political distractions of the approaching presidential election, the report may be shelved to gather dust.

That would be a tragedy. The United States badly needs a national science strategy and the Fuqua report could be the basis for developing it. However, Congress will do little without a strong lead from an administration that, so far, has shown little taste for science policy. Were that to change and were a comprehensive plan for encouraging and adequately funding the American scientific enterprise to emerge, the Reagan administration and the 100th Congress would leave a lasting and beneficial legacy.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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