Science advice in the Oval Office

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SCIENCE and technology policy is likely to get more careful consideration under the next president of the United States. That would be a welcome change. President Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative with little input from the scientific community and often seemed to endorse multibillion-dollar science projects with little regard for the efficiency of their scientific payback or for their effect on the federal budget.

Vice-President George Bush and Gov. Michael Dukakis both advocate a stronger voice for the president's science adviser. Each, we hope, would use his adviser less as a salesman and more as an adviser than did Mr. Reagan. Both have laid out plans to improve science education and to help research breakthroughs work their way into the marketplace faster. Both support a vigorous space program and tax incentives to promote private-sector research and development.

Their biggest difference lies in the broad directions they would set for federal R&D spending. SDI helped skew federal R&D money toward the military. Mr. Dukakis says he will restore a balance, largely by reducing SDI research. Mr. Bush favors funding SDI at current levels.

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We need to hear more, however, about priorities. Both would upgrade outdated university research facilities: estimated price, $20 billion. Both would double the National Science Foundation budget over the next five years. Both say the US can't shortchange ``small science'' of the kind that has led to amazing breakthroughs in superconductors during the last two years. Then add projects in the works: a $20 billion space station; the superconducting supercollider, $4.4 billion; mapping the human genome, $3 billion; and several billion for a hypersonic space plane.

That's a tall order with tight budgets. Nor is either one saying anything about how he will muster support in Congress, which hands out the checks.

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