Scientists wince as budget axe swings

As Congress digs into President Reagan's budget, outcries are heard from parts of the scientific community. Some American scientific leaders warn of "drastic" cuts that would impair the nation's scientific strength. European space officials angrily object to cancellation of the US half of a joint project.

Judging from the commotion, you would scarcely realize that the President wants to spend more money than ever on science and technological development. Compared with last year, he is asking for a healthy 21 percent rise in federal funding -- $6.9 billion for fiscal 1982 as opposed to $5.7 billion actually allotted in fiscal 1980, which ended last June.

The outcries arise because of rearranged priorities.

The administration has not cut its requests below past general levels of spending. It has cut down the increase in spending proposed by the Carter 1982 budget, which requested $7.6 billion for science, space, and technology. This is being done within a strategy that eliminates or defers new projects, that gives higher priority to programs deemed central to an agency's mission and of wide interest than it does to those deemed peripheral and of narrow interest, and that emphasizes short-term payoffs over long-range return.

Thus, the National Science Foundation would not be too tightly constrained overall by its $1.034 billion budget. However, what scientists consider to be two key new programs would be clobbered. A $75 million program to upgrade research equipment at colleges and universities would be deferred, and support for a proposed $87 million science education program would be cut to something like $25 million. Also a project to build a 25-meter telescope in Hawaii would be postponed. International activities and programs to help women and minorities rise in science and engineering professions would be sharply curtailed, as would support for the social and behavioral sciences.

This has stirred much protest. D. Allan Bromley, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, sent a telegram to the President calling the cuts in science education support "disproportionate." He warned, "To expect scientific and technological progress while abandoning efforts at improving science and engineering teaching in our schools is illogical and a disservice to the nation's interests."

The American Psychological Association wrote to David A. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget: "Perhaps the most visible cause of declining scientific advancement in this country is our aging research machinery. . . . The $75 million was budgeted for equipment only after a serious consideration of national needs."

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also was treated rather gently in terms of overall funding.President Carter had proposed a 21 percent budget increase. President Reagan now asks for about a 12 percent rise that would give NASA around $6.2 billion.

Space shuttle development would be well funded, although money for scientific experiments on shuttle missions would be cut back. The fourth shuttle orbiter would not be deferred, nor would the option to build a fifth orbiter be eliminated as had been earlier proposed.

In space science, NASA could go ahead with the Galileo project to send an orbiter and probes to Jupiter. Also, full funding would be provided for support of all spacecraft still returning useful data. These include the Pioneer spacecraft now orbiting Venus and the two Voyagers, one on its way to Saturn and one proceeding to Uranus.

Bur no new planetary missions are in the offing, a prospect that Bruce Murray , director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says could lead to loss of US momentum in this field. A project to map Venus by radar would be postponed until at least 1988. The Space Telescope to be launched by shuttle would be funded. But a gamma ray telescope astronomers want would be eliminated. And, what is especially controversial, the US half of the International Solar Polar Mission would be canceled.

This mission was to have sent two spacecraft over the north and south poles of the sun respectively. The European Space Agency (ESA) was to provide one craft while NASA supplied the other. Now NASA, saving money here to maintain the Galileo project, has cancelled its probe, even though the project is well advanced and an international commitment is involved. ESA officials are protesting strongly to the US State Department.

Other science-related budget have fared similarly, suffering sometimes painful cuts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) allocation was reduced to $800 million from $1.05 billion. Among other things, some 38 National Weather Service forecasting offices would be closed. Most of these are small stations. The Coastal Energy Impact and Coastal Zone Management Programs would be closeD. The administration thinks states should take over such programs from which they directly benefit.

One major project NOAA was to share with NASA and the Navy -- the National Ocean Satellite System (NOSS) -- will be deferred for an overall saving of $1 billion.

Within the Department of Energy, some $40 million would be cut from the general science programs. This would reduce support for such areas as high energy physics, where funding levels are already so low that major particle accelerators cannot now be used to full capacity. Solar energy research and energy conservation programs would be cut by 60 percent and 75 percent respectively.

In short, the proposed Reagan budget would give science and technology strong overall support but would trim certain areas severely -- some scientists would say unwisely. However, unhappy as many scientists are about specific cuts, they seem generally to accept the need to reduce federal expenditures, with support for science bearing its share of the burden.

This attitude, plus similar sentiment in Congress, makes it difficult to anticipate whether or to what extent the proposed reductions might be restored by lawmakers, although there already is strong lobbying to recover the funds for university research equipment and science education. Pressure from Western Europe to restore the US half of the Solar Polar mission may be more effective because it involves the international good faith of the country.

Yet, even here, the US economy may come first. Sen. Harrison H. Schmidt (R) of New Mexico, a former astronaut who is chairman of the science and space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, has expressed concern for the US international posture. But he also affirms the need to make substantial budget cuts and says science, space, and technology budgets must bear reductions.

What disturbs many scientists is the appearance that sensitive budget decisions are being made with no advice from them. President Reagan, at this writing, had yet to name a science advisor. Even members of his science advisory transition team have had little access to the White House during the budget planning.

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