In spite of the severe economic challenge the United States faces, the outlook for scientific research funding appears moderately bright. The country spent something like $60.4 billion for research and development (R&D) in 1980, according to a National Science Foundation estimate. That outlay is likely to rise 13.7 percent to $68.6 billion this year, in the judgment of Jules J. Duga and W. Halder Fisher of the Battelle Columbus Laboratories.
Such an increase, larger than the expected inflation rate, portends real growth in the research effort. Moreover, the federal share of the outlay may rise even higher. Dr. Duga and Dr. Fisher expect a federal outlay of about $33. 7 billion -- up 14 percent from 1980. That would give the federal government a little less than half (49.1 percent) of the total 1981 outlay for the US as a whole.
This expectation of strong R&D funding in the face of a possible economic recession and the need of the Reagan administration to cut government spending reflects the priority that Congress has begun to give scientific and engineering research -- a priority the new administration is expected to encourage.
In fact, 1980 itself was not as bleak as researchers had anticipated when the Carter administration curtailed its budget last spring. A proposed boost in R&D funding was trimmed from the 11 percent originally requested to 8 percent. In its closing days, the outgoing Congress restored much of the lost funding.
There is a difference between research budgets and actual expenditures. Budgets allocate funds that can be committed in a given fiscal year. They may not all be spent within that year, however. Expenditures, such as the figures in the Battelle projection, represent money that is actually spent.
Recognizing this difference, trends in both expenditures and budgets can be taken as indicators of the climate for R&D support. Thus it is significant both that analysts such as Duga and Fisher foresee a substantial rise in expenditures and that Congress has protected the research effort.
Last summer, physicists were alarmed when the funds for basic research supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) were threatened to the point where some fields, such as particle physics, would have lost vitality. Now, the DOE's relevant budget, that of the Office of Energy Research, will be only a little under what was originally requested -- $1.145 billion instead of $1.203 billion.
Much of the small reduction will come from postponement of improvements at national laboratories. This will still crimp some fields, but will not cripple them as was threatened last summer.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also was given the money it needs to cover extra costs in getting its reusable space shuttle into orbit. However, Congress, reflecting the concern of space scientists, has let NASA know that shuttle costs cannot be allowed to starve the space science programs. To enforce this, Congress directed NASA to get the approval of the National Academy of Sciences before making any substantive changes in the space science programs.
For fund-starved researchers, this year- end action by Congress is a hopeful sign that their needs will be kept in the forefront of national policy as the new administration tackles the US economy. At the same time, the congressional action does not foreshadow any return to the lavish funding of basic science that characterized the 1960s.
Much of the new money going into research will merely offset inflation. Also , much of it will go for the development part of "R&D."
As the Battelle study points out, the larger part of the national R&D expenditure is made by industry. This is generally spent within industry itself for its own purposes. These include relatively little basic science.
Added to this is the fact that much of the federal funding also supports applied rather than basic science. Thus, while the outlook for research generally is encouraging, the basic sciences themselves are by no means out of the financial woods.