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Scientists Get Squeezed by Clinton Budget

Defense research slows down after cold war while budget caps constrict civilian side

By Robert C. CowenStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1994



SAN FRANCISCO

THERE are tougher times ahead for American scientists.

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Presidential science advisor John Gibbons warns ``there is no new money out there'' for science and technology in the administration's 1995 budget request. If any programs get favored treatment, there's ``extra pain elsewhere in the budget,'' he says.

Congressman George Brown, Jr. (D) of California - chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology - adds that this is just the ``bad news.'' The ``worse news,'' he says, is that ``the long-term outlook for many science and R&D [research & development] budgets is very grim.'' He explains that ``we will continue to spend less of our national income on nondefense R&D than we did from the mid-1960s through 1980.''

That's the stark message that some of Washington's top science policy makers have brought to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here.

They stress that it is not official disenchantment with science that is putting the squeeze on research, but an overriding need to contain the general budget deficit and respect spending caps set by law.

Dr. Gibbons tried to reassure scientists meeting here that ``the president feels we must sustain and support the science and technology enterprise.'' Yet, as Representative Brown notes, the Clinton budget plan projects a 2 percent cut in cumulative discretionary spending from 1994-98 to meet the spending caps. That, he warned, ``includes a cut of 11.3 percent'' for science, space, and technology generally.

President Clinton requests $71.029 billion overall for fiscal year 1995, beginning Oct. 1, for research and development, not including $2.016 billion for facilities. That's a 4 percent increase from fiscal year 1994.

With $31.5 billion for total civilian R&D and $39.528 billion for the defense share - a 47/53 split - the R&D budget is less dominated by defense than a few years ago. Yet civilian R&D does not benefit as much as these numbers imply. Brown explains that they reflect a slowdown in defense R&D rather than a substantial rise on the civilian side.

He notes that the United States spent 11 percent more on its total R&D in 1991 than Japan, France, and West Germany combined. But those countries spent 17 percent more than the US on civilian research. Brown says he foresees this lag in civilian research continuing.

Tough competition for civilian research dollars is making for equally tough choices, with many worthwhile projects being passed over, as science advisor Gibbons repeatedly stressed.

Given the administration's emphasis on what it considers research that relates to national needs, the funding game is biased against supporting science evenly across the board. The budget has a 22 percent increase ($1.4 billion) for such ``relevant'' research.

The National Science Foundation, for example, would get a 6 percent budget boost. Its director, Neal Lane, said that the agency is committed to broad support of basic science. Yet he admitted that fields not obviously related to national needs are ``riskier'' for scientists to pursue.

The funding crunch reflects the fact that the American scientific enterprise is in transition. Cold war imperatives are obsolete and new priorities have yet to be set.

Gibbons said Congress and the public are looking for ``a more tangible sense of responsibility [in the research community] to the people who fund the work.'' He asked for ``a comprehensive rethinking of how [we do] science and technology.''

Brown said that ``the role of the science community as a whole is to get their act together and start interacting with the politicians ... more ambitiously'' to prevent uninformed decisions by the politicians.