Carter budget refuels space shuttle effort

Scientific research and development -- vital to United States innovativeness and productivity but shorted in funding since the space-race days of the mid- 1960s -- is due for a strong increase in the new federal budget. This year's priorities: defense, space, energy.

Defense research and development (R&D) leads the way, up 20 percent with obligations of $16.2 billion for fiscal 1981. This constitutes 45 percent of all government R&D and reflects the current tilt toward military preparedness.

Space agency research follows at $5.6 billion, up 8 percent, the bulk of it for the ongoing space shuttle program. Then come energy ($5.1 billion, up 11.5 percent), health ($4 billion, up 6 percent), and the National Science Foundation ($1.1 billion, up 17 percent).

Overall, the government plans a 12 percent increase in scientific spending for fiscal 1981. That translates to 3 percent real growth when inflation is factored out, says presidential science adviser Frank Press. The Carter Administration, Dr. Press says, intends to keep R&D growing above other government expenditures.

The R&D boost comes at a time when Congress and industry are investigating ways to cope with an "innovation lag" in the US. In a study released two weeks ago, the Council for Economic Development, a business research group, expressed concern that government R&D spending had fallen by one-third since the mid-1960 s. The study argued that higher government R&D, coupled with tax, regulatory, and patent reforms, could speed the introduction and diffusion of new technologies and thereby benefit the economy.

Government finances about half of all R&D, mostly in the area of research. Industry leads development.

Outside of defense (analyzed Jan. 28 in the Monitor), these are the highlights of the government's major scientific programs in the new budget:

* Energy: An increase in support for R&D on solar energy, fossil fuels, and nuclear fusion; a decrease in fission R&D related to the controversial breeder reactor; and steady support for conversation.

* Space: The chronically delayed space shuttle program, which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration now says will not be launched until late this year or early 1981 -- two years behind schedule -- will receive the bulk of the money. A new gamma ray observatory to be launched aboard the shuttle will be developed for high-energy astrophysics research. Oceanic and agricultural satellite systems, space radio communications, and new projects in more efficient aircraft design also will be important. The percentage increase in space funding actually is 16 percent higher than that approved by Congress in 1980. But during the year, NASA benefitted from a $300 million supplement to the 1980 budget for the shuttle.

* Health: The largest amount of R&D money goes to the National Institute of Health, which supports biomedical and behavioral research. Priority studies are on nutrition, genetics, cancer, diabetes, radiation, and environmental hazards.

* National Science Foundation: Physical sciences and engineering will be emphasized in research programs using government, industry, and academic scientists. Much of the money will go to begin a program to upgrade the nation's research laboratories and to stimulate university activity. The Very Large Array radio astronomy antenna at Socorro, N.M., will be in full operation.

The budget also points out new scientific areas where a combination of federal agencies and private groups will concentrate. A triad of American technological concerns -- computers, autos, and oil -- are prominent among these areas:

* Money to boost experimental computer science by colleges and to fund studies in microelectronics. Computation, communication, and miniature electronics are important to the economic, intellectual, and military strength of the nation, a government budget analysis says. The results of this research will help the US maintain its lead in these areas in the future.

* A new joint government-industry program in basic automotive research to design the cars of the future. Concerned about the slumping auto industry and the reliance on foreign oil, the government would spend $800 million over 10 years, most of the money coming from the windfall-profits tax, and industry would spend up to $500 million on new types of autos.

* A geologic study of the world's "ocean margins," with initial emphasis on the US margins. Eight major oil companies will work with government scientists in a 10-year, $700 million probe for hydrocarbons in the area between the continental shelf and the deep ocean abyss.

The government-owned research ship, Glomar Explorer, will be equipped with the ability to drill wells in 13,000 feet of water and 20,000 feet below the sea floor. The aim is to advance the depth of deep-sea oil drilling from 6,000 feet to about 13,000 feet, opening up large areas of the ocean to oil exploration.

In an effort to bring more minority students into the sciences, the government is initiating a program of 2,000 apprenticeships in science and engineering.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.