The surge of pride Americans felt with the majestic, safe return of the space shuttle Columbia could help strengthen one of the weak underpinnings of future US scientific achievements.
The quality of science and engineering education in the United States, already on a long decline, will suffer further from proposed federal budget cuts , according to a variety of educational experts.
Teachers are in short supply, undertrained, and not provided with adequate laboratory instructional equipment, these experts say.
But a number of these analysts think the space shuttle drama will help rekindle a determination to improve the quality of scientific and engineering instruction in high schools and colleges.
"It [the successful space shuttle mission] is a terribly needed" boost to the American spirit, says Philip Handler, president of the American Academy of Science.
A decline in that spirit has affected many phases of American life, including the spark with which many science and mathematics teachers instruct, says Dr. Handler.
The last time the US made a major push to improve the quality of teaching in the sciences was during the sputnik era of the 1950s, says Arthur H. Livermore, head of the science education office of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest private scientific association.
Today, he says, "I think we've lost the steam and we're not in good shape."
But the American public's interest in science -- already high -- will get a "boost" from the space shuttle, says John Slaughter, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency.
As a team player in the Reagan administration -- one dependent on federal funding for his programs -- Dr. Slaughter has until now defended the Reagan budget cut proposals in his agency.
But in an interview with this newspaper on a recent visit to Atlanta, Dr. Slaughter spoke out against the cuts -- apparently for the first time publicly.
He was "very concerned," he said, about the proposed spending reductions, which are "essentially dismantling" the science education programs of NSF.
He said he hoped the cuts would be "temporary," adding that he hopes to convince the Office of Management and Budget to ease up for fiscal year 1983.
President Reagan's budget proposals for fiscal year 1982 eliminate all but about $10 million of a $110 million NSF program in advanced training for teachers and students. The administration is generally holding the line on NSF funding for science research, however,
A report issued last year by the Carter administration referred to the deteriorating condition of science education during the 1970s.
Scholastic Aptitude Tests in science and math-related subjects have shown a steady decline for more than a decade, says Dr. Handler. Most disturbing is the decline among students who otherwise score high on the tests --in math and the sciences, he adds.
A US House subcommittee recently approved restoration of $65 million of the $ 100 million NSF cuts in science education. No Senate action has yet been taken.
But the Reagan administration sees federal funding of science education as "frosting on the cake" and not defendable in a tight-spending era, says a staff member of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which has oversight of the NSF.
Research is the basic role of the NSF, this staffer said. Dr. Livermore disagrees, saying Congress established the NSF to do both research and to help improve th e quality of education in the sciences.